Sacred Duty, Bleeding Heart

Chapter 31

It is dark and cold around him, a suppressing darkness that seems to be alive. A coldness that is chilling him to the core of his soul. He is lost and he is trying to find his way, only he can’t remember where to. Something tells him he is running out of time, so he begins to hurry, and eventually, to run. He needs to reach... something. Or someone? He can’t remember.

Then he sees a light. A faint gleam in the darkness ahead, and he makes for the light, running even faster. A silhouette forms in front of the light, a woman, and as she turns around, he recognises her. And behind her, the dim light reveals the outline of something huge, something even darker than the darkness around him.

She is unaware of death lurking behind her, and he shouts a warning.

As much as he runs, he cannot get closer.
The dark void behind her grows. He tries to run, but is frozen to the ground.

“KATLA!!”Flailing and kicking, Fili fell out of the bed and as he gasped for air, he looked around to find himself in his bedroom, his legs tangled in the blanket.
With a groan, he dragged himself into the bed again, shuddering with cold that the blanket could do nothing against.

Katla jerked up from her slumber, suddenly wide awake. Someone had called her... but it had just been a dream... hadn’t it? It had been Fili’s voice.

With a sigh, Katla closed her eyes again, but then she smelled it. She jumped out of the bed, grabbed her sleeping son who howled in protest and ran out of the hut as fast as she could.

The night was lit in orange, and the crackle of the flames made her shudder. Moments after she had shot through the door, the roof collapsed in a shower of sparks and burning timber. Alarm calls sounded through the night, windows lit up, and men and women began to wake, and run outside to save panicking livestock and build bucket chains with water. Two empty sheds had already burned to the ground.

Katla hugged her wailing child to her chest and stared at the heap of burning wood and cinders where only moments ago, she and her son had been fast asleep.

Fili hadn’t slept any more at all that night, and when he dragged himself into the hall for breakfast, he overheard bits and pieces of conversation about his brother and a mission. He forced a few pieces of bread down followed by a cup of milk, and with a frown, went to find his brother.

As it turned out, Kili had already left, without as much as a goodbye for his brother. With a deep frown and more than a little disappointed, Fili went to find his mother. She was in her halls, working on a large quilt with the rest of her ladies.


Dís looked up, and upon seeing his facial expression, ran her needle loosely into the cloth and got up.

Fili followed her into her private chamber and crossed his arms as Dís closed the door behind her.

“I guess you want to know where your brother has gone?”
His mother met his eyes and noticed how tired he looked. When was the last time he had had a good night’s sleep? She gathered her thoughts and cleared her throat.

“He left with the first light of dawn. Thorin has sent him on a mission.”
“A mission.” Fili stared at her under lowered eyelids. “A mission so secret he couldn’t even say goodbye to me?”
Dís pressed her lips together. “Thorin has...”
“Asked him for secrecy, I guess.” Fili dropped his arm and wandered aimlessly over to a small table, picked up the figurine standing there and looked at it in mild disinterest. “So he wouldn’t have to lie to me.”
“I guess so.”

Fili put the figurine down again and turned around. “He could at least have waited until the third year has passed completely,” he said. “He is the one who keeps going on about the ancient laws, after all.” Then he shrugged. “A few weeks are not going to make a difference, anyway.”
“What do you mean?” Dís could hear her voice waver.
“What I mean?” A mirthless chuckle escaped her son. “I am not a fool, mother. He’s send Kili to find me another bride. He could have just told me, I wasn’t expecting to have any choice in the matter this time, either.”
“Fili...” Dís wrung her hands.
“It matters not.” Fili headed for the door.

“Fili, wait.”
He stopped, his hand hovering over the handle. “What is it?”
“Fili.” Dís stepped to his side. “You do not honestly believe what Thorin said to you about the dragon sickness?”
Fili met her eyes, but Dís found she could no longer read him.

“That matters little, either.” Fili shrugged. “If it is a sickness or no, I’d be better off without it. I just hope I’ll have better luck with this one. It would be bad for the reputation of Durin’s line if I kept on using up wives the way other people use shirts.”
His words stabbed Dís like a dagger. “Fili...”
But her son just shrugged and left her.

As Dís settled down to her needlework again, a memory rose from the bottom of her heart, a memory she had hoped to have banished. She let it come back, probing the pain like a tongue would a sore tooth, and as her fingers deftly worked, her mind went back two hundred years in time.

She had been very young, just on the verge of womanhood, when she had been crowned the Emerald Princess. It was later that same year that another princess had been crowned, a princess who had later been removed from the family annals and the Archives of Blood, forced to live in shame and disgrace. Dís closed her eyes for a moment as she remembered Skadi.

A beautiful woman with raven-dark hair and fierce green eyes, she had been crowned the Onyx Princess after her marriage to Flovin, son of Flói, son of Fror, brother to Thror, King under the Mountain. The wedding and subsequent coronation had been the first events in Dís’s life she had partaken in as a princess, and that was probably why she remembered them so vividly.

Skadi had come from the Kingdom of Ered Gethrin close to the Sea of Rhun, a young woman a very long way from home, married to a man she had never seen before.
Dís had few memories of Flovin other than the fact that he and her brothers were not at the best of terms. That had only become worse after Flovin had married.
Because Flovin had cared little about his beautiful wife. Thorin, on the other hand...

Dís heaved a heavy sigh. Thorin had taken one look at her, during the wedding, and had lost his heart and his soul to the woman who was now his cousin’s wife. He had later confided his love for Skadi in his sister, as there had always been a deep bond of trust and love between them. Dís, in her youth, had not fully understood back then what the true meaning of his words had been, but as the years passed, she had come to realise.

When after several years, Skadi had failed to produce an heir, Flovin had applied for abrogation of their marriage and found himself another woman.
It had been a bitter day for Skadi when Flovin announced that his first heir would be born soon.

Skadi had lost her husband and her status as princess, but had still been a lady in the court of the Topaz Princess, the wife of Thrain, until her family would fetch her home. But when it became clear that she was the barren one, her family refused to take her back, and she became a discarded, unwanted wife.

Dís sighed and looked at her needle that had come to a halt. She felt the looks of the other ladies on her, but could not help her brooding.
The poor, poor woman. Dís had felt so sorry for her as she had watched her leave the halls of her grandmother, but she wasn’t even allowed to tell her goodbye.

Because there was only one place for a woman who had been cast out in shame and disgrace. A place no one spoke about, certainly no woman. And while men did not deny its existence, they didn’t speak about it publicly, either. Back then, Dís hadn’t even known such a place existed in Erebor, and it was only because of her brother’s dark desperation that she learned about the House of Pleasure, where a man could buy himself the body of a woman if he could not find relief otherwise. And the women in that place had no name anymore, they were just laszâna – lust-women.

And her brother had been forced to watch the woman he loved fall from princess to whore. He could have saved her. He could have spared her the cruel fate, but even back then, he was so immersed in his thoughts of duty that he denied himself that possibility. He was the heir to the throne, he needed heirs of his own. He could not go and marry a barren woman. He had told his sister that many times, in tears and in anger and in helpless desperation.

In the end, he had lost her for good. When Smaug had come, few of the inhabitants of the lower levels of Erebor had made it out alive and Dís had not seen Skadi again.

Until they had met again in Ered Luin, years later and after Dís had become a mother and been widowed. Skadi had stood in front of her door one day to beg her for help, after she had heard about Dís’s fate and realised her old friend was still alive. Dís had been horrified at her state, haggard with hunger and clad in naught but rags.
Not even the poverty and bitter fate of their exile had let the dwarrow forget or forgive the laszâna their existence, as it seemed.

But not so for Dís. She had shed bitter tears for the fate of her friend from olden times, and she had done what was in her power to find a place for her. In the end, one of her own dearest friends, Elira, the wife of Gloín, had realised the cruelty in this treatment and taken her in as a serving woman, the best they had been able to do for her. Gloín hadn’t been happy, but he never said a bad word about Skadi and with time, grown to like and respect her.

Dís continued her sewing and pressed her lips together. Thorin could have saved her then. And he was about to, when their life changed yet again. Thorin had even begun courting her, and for the first time in so long a time, Skadi had been given hope for her future. And then...
Then a wizard showed up with a map and a key, and suddenly Thorin was heir to a throne once more.

Dís wasn’t even sure she had come to Erebor with them, she had left Gloín’s household shortly after Thorin had left for his quest. With a heavy sigh, she looked up.

“What is it, Dís?” Míl let her needle rest, and Elira did likewise. “What is so heavy on your heart?”
“Old memories.” Dís looked back and forth between her old friends. “I just realised that if we had never been forced to leave Erebor, I would never have known you. As it is, I call you my closest friends, and with our fate having changed, you are now ladies of a princess’ court.”

Her two friends exchanged a glance. “That is true,” Elira said. “We have been very lucky.”
“Yes, we all have. I never believed that I should ever be called the Emerald Princess again. But there are others who have not been so fortunate as us.”
“True.” Míl tilted her head. “Who are you thinking of?”
“I am thinking of another old friend of mine who has been suffering from bad luck ever since she first came here.”

“Skadi.”Elira met Dís’s eyes. “It is her you think of, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know how you did this, but yes.” A faint smile played on Dís’s lips. “Yes, we were friends before brutal laws made by heartless old men forced her into a cruel and dolorous fate.”
Míl shook her head. “Did she make it to Erebor at all?”

“She did.” Dís swallowed. “I saw her once, or I think it was her. She was headed for the kitchen with two pails of water, and I hailed her, but she never showed she heard me. Either it wasn’t her, or she wanted to ignore me. I couldn’t blame her if that was the case.”

Míl and Elira exchanged a thoughtful look.
“But you have never done anything to harm her,” Elira finally ventured.
“I don’t know.” Dís met her eyes. “Not consciously. But I surely am the bearer of bad news for her, and a trigger for bad memories.”

Her two friends fell silent, and Dís swore to herself to try and find her again, to talk to her again. Maybe Skadi could help Thorin discover that he still had a heart.

In the weeks that followed, Fili began to spend more and more time in the forge to avoid Thorin who in turn, let him be.
In the knowledge that once his brother returned from wherever Thorin had sent him, he would have to begin courting again, Fili felt anger and frustration rise in him every time he thought about it, and the forge was the only place he could go to channel that anger into something other than aimless roaming.

He found peace in the familiar rhythm of bellow and hammer; his earliest memories were those of being in the forge with his mother. And he felt satisfaction upon finishing a piece of work that had gone well.

Being in the forge gave him a sense of purpose again that he somehow had managed to lose, and he spend more and more of his time at the anvil, or labouring with the other workers to clean the furnaces, refill them, shovel coal and slag and ferry heavy wheelbarrows around. He felt better than he had in months, and wondered why he hadn’t come back here sooner.

He filled his days with hard labour, his evenings with a long bath in the bathhouse, and the exhaustion of his daily work helped him sleep a little better. He knew he was making use of what little freedom was left to him before Thorin remembered his heirs had other duties, and this made him savour his work even more.

He missed his brother, though. He would have liked to spend his evenings with Kili, sitting in a tub and drinking ale, chatting at the fire over a pipe. But thinking of his brother made him remember why he was gone, and that once he came back, his days of freedom would be over.

It was a week before midwinter when Dís finally found her old friend again. Míl and Elira had told her she worked in the kitchen for the royal household, and Dìs had attempted several times to talk to her. Skadi had pretended not to know her and Dís had let her be every time, but this time, she had promised herself not to give up. She kept thinking of Fili, and that hardened her resolve.

This close to the midwinter celebration, the kitchen was a madhouse filled with flurries of activities. In the middle of all this, Bombur’s wife stood and directed the maids and servants like a queen of her own little kingdom, pointing here, shouting there, expecting every order to be carried out accordingly, yelling when that wasn’t the case, but also praising when something had been done well.

Oddní was Bombur’s match in size, a woman of massive proportions but with a heart of gold. Sometimes, Dís couldn’t help but wonder how in Mahal´s name these two had managed to produce seven children, but they were obviously very fond of each other and love would find a way.

Dís made her way through the chaos, until she spotted her in a corner scrubbing pots.

She looked up, and a wisp of her black hair had escaped her headscarf. She brushed it back with a soapy hand. “My princess?”
“Skadi, please.” Dís swallowed. “I know I should have looked for you sooner. I am sorry that I haven’t.”
Skadi shrugged.
“Skadi. I am sorry. I honestly thought you hadn’t come with us to Erebor. And then... you pretended not to know me.”
“You have a reputation to loose, my princess. You shouldn’t be talking to the likes of me.” Skadi finally looked up, and Dís could see she still wore the small golden ring in the ala of her nose that marked her a shamed woman, a laszûna.

“Skadi. We were friends once, before you fell foul of a very cruel fate. I would have us be friends again if you want it. Take that ring off, I would give you the status of a widow and you could...”
“I could what?” Skadi straightened up and wiped her hands on her dirty apron. “Be a lady in your court? The King would never allow that.”
Dís did not fail to hear the special stress she had put on the words ‘the King’. “My retinue is my business alone,” she said.
“But he would have to agree anyway.” Skadi shook her head. “And he won’t. Everyone knows what I am.”

Dís sighed. “But why are you still wearing that ring? Why did you not take it off?”
“I cannot be taken off.” She shook her head. “But it saves me telling any man I am not worth courting.” She bent over her pot again and resumed her scrubbing.

Dís hesitated for a moment, and her voice was low when she spoke again. “I know of one who would not look at you that way.”
Skadi paused and slowly looked up. “You believe that, do you?”
“I know it. He still loves you.”
Skadi snorted softly. “If he does, then he has a very poor way of showing it.”
“And don’t I know it...” Dís shook her head. “But... Skadi, if he came to you, would you...”
“He won’t come to me.” Skadi furiously attacked the pot with her scrub. “And even if he did, I’m not sure I can forgive him. I did, back then when both his father and grandfather were still alive. But what he did to me in Ered Luin... I don’t know if I can forgive him that.”

“And I would not blame you if you never did.” Dís put a hand on her arm. “I am actually not sure he has forgiven himself.”
“What is it you want?” Skadi snarled. “There is no going back! And now leave me alone, I have work to do!”

Dís sighed but left her alone. She had had hopes that being reunited with his love would make Thorin see that there was more to life than duty. But it seemed her efforts in helping the men she loved were all doomed to fail.

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