Sacred Duty, Bleeding Heart

Chapter 36

The next few days passed by almost like a dream, Fili and Katla spent their days getting to know each other again, and Fili getting to know his son; the three of them becoming a family.

And at night, when they were alone, they made love with a passion and hunger that never seemed to be satisfied. And while Katla had been somewhat unhappy and concerned about the marks the pregnancy had left on her body, Fili had kissed every single one of them and told her how proud he was of the scars she bore of her own battles.

It then became a game for them; Katla finding a random scar on his body and him telling her where he got it. But when she came to touch the scar on his forehead words failed them both and they would just kiss to banish all the bad memories that were still haunting them every now and then.

It was with great anxiety that Fili took up the duties that were the King’s, but he quickly discovered that with having been close to Thorin for so long, whether with him in his study or beside his throne, there was nothing new, nothing he had not at least observed. He began to settle, but it still felt strange not to ask Thorin for his approval.

Katla spent her days now in the Halls of the Queen but had been adamant about not wanting to take Dís’s place as the head of the Queen’s court.
“I may be the queen,” she had said. “But I am queen in title alone. You earned this place. I shall learn from you and take the place when it is time.”
Dís could accept that, she herself had believed that there still was time for Katla to learn.

And there was a lot she had to learn. Katla’s days were filled with etiquette, politics, Khuzdul lessons, customs and practise and rituals.

Yet despite being so occupied during the daytime hours Katla didn’t fail to notice that Skadi seemed to be avoiding her. She thought about asking Dís, but then decided against it.

So one evening she followed Skadi out of the hall after the evening meal.

“Skadi? A word, if I may?”
Skadi inclined her head. “Of course, my Queen.”
Katla looked around. “A more private place, maybe?”
“Up on the balustrades is my preferred quiet spot. It is a mild night and not too windy.”
“Then let us go there.”

Once they had mounted the stairs and stepped out into the mild spring night, Skadi turned to Katla with another incline of her head.
“What is it you wanted to speak about?”
Katla took a deep breath to steady her nerves. “I am not sure if I am imagining things, if so, then please forgive me... but you seem to be avoiding me. Have I done you wrong?”

Skadi narrowed her eyes and tilted her head, as if she hadn’t understood a word Katla had said. Then a sad smile flit over her face. “No, my Queen. You have not done me wrong. I just thought it prudent to keep away from you for your own sake.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
Skadi shook her head. “It is something Dís has avoided talking about, as of yet. It is because of what befell me many years ago, and what has destroyed my life and my reputation. I should not be near you, the Queen of purity, honesty, love and compassion.”

“Skadi, you talk about yourself as if you have no value at all!” Katla reached out to touch her, but Skadi avoided her touch.
“My Queen...”
“No, please. Everyone in the Queen’s court calls me by name, and I would like for you to do that as well. You spoke of an ill fate, is there anything I could do to help?”

Skadi was silent for a moment, and her voice was soft when she spoke. “I do not want your pity.”
“I am not offering you pity.” Katla’s voice was low as well. “I offer you friendship, for that is what I would have between us, if possible.”
“You don’t even know me, why would you want to be my friend?”
Katla lowered her eyes for a moment before meeting Skadi’s gaze again.

“Because you look like you need one,” she whispered. “You are an outsider somehow, in a manner that I don’t understand. But I don’t want you to be alone, I know the feeling and I know how much it hurts sometimes.”
“What do you know, child of a woman.” Skadi’s voice was much gentler than her words. “What do you know of being an outsider?”

“I was one most of my life,” Katla replied. “I grew up as a foundling with no parents, amongst humans who believed me to be a half-breed. I have been called impure, abomination, ugly and a hundred other hurtful things almost all my life. And when I finally met other dwarrow for the first time... I was still an outsider. They treated me with more respect, but I still had no place among them. I had to lie about my blood to be accepted... but I only did it so my son would not have to suffer what I suffered.”
“But you are no half-breed,” Skadi replied after a moment. “You have been lucky. The shame I carry will never leave me, it is burned both into my body and my soul.”

Katla sighed and reached to her again. “What can I do?”
“Nothing.” Skadi shook her head and after hesitatingly hovering her hand above Katla’s, finally allowed her to take it. “You can do nothing, but for you to understand, I fear I must share my shame.”

She paused and looked past Katla into the night. “I came here to marry a prince, a few years before Smaug came and took it. But I came under a bad omen, I believe. My stone is the Onyx. It stands for separation and for invisibility. But also for self confidence and deflecting negative feelings. I had need of the latter two, my Queen, as the former two seemed to have cursed me from the day I married.”
Katla held her hand and listened.

“A few years I lasted. And then my husband decided to cast me aside for being barren. It was a shame, but none I wasn’t able to bear. I was still part of the court, but then the news came back to Erebor that my family had no interest in my return. They, as it turned out, had cast me out as well, for being barren. I was of no use to them, and apparently their love for me was not enough to equal that. That was when I lost everything I had. I was outcast, shamed, and had only one place to go.”

Skadi met Katla’s eyes. “Do you know what a laszûna is, my Queen?”
Katla shook her head, but then her mind suddenly unravelled the meaning of the word. She paled and felt her stomach drop. “Mahal’s mercy...” She swallowed and had to fight her tears. “It can’t be true...”
“It is true. I had no one to take me, no one to care for me. I was cast out, marked with my shame, and abandoned to the only place these women have left to go to.”
“No one?” Katla swallowed. “There was no one who would have helped you?”

Skadi took a deep breath. “There was one,” she said after a moment. “A young prince who, as I learned, had fallen in love with me even as I married his cousin. He would have taken me, but he was... he was not allowed to. His father and grandfather forbid him to take a barren woman. He tried, but he could not defy them.”

Katla frowned, and felt in an odd way reminded of her own fate, and Fili’s. “That prince...” she said after a moment. “Do you know if he is still alive? Do you think you could forgive him that he couldn’t help you?”
“I have forgiven him long ago,” Skadi gave back, a distant look in her eyes. “Because I know what power the king and his son held over him. He was powerless. But what I have not forgiven him is what happened later. Much later. He found me in Ered Luin. He approached me, he courted me. And I began to believe that I could leave my shame behind. But it wasn’t meant to be.”
“Did he die?”

Skadi shook her head, chuckling sadly under her breath. “No. Or maybe, he did. He was a blacksmith, a prince in exile with no throne and no kingdom, only a heavy load of memories. But then the dwarrow of Ered Luin rallied around a wizard with a map and a key, and suddenly, he was heir to the throne again.”

Katla felt a cold shiver creep down her spine.

“And thus it ended.” Skadi squared her shoulders. “As an heir to the throne, he could not allow love to get in the way of his duties. He needed heirs, he said, even if he had already named his sister-son as the next in line. And he left me, still a shamed woman. He was in tears as he did so, but he left me. Still a shamed woman, a laszûna. And even here, in the new kingdom, I was a woman without worth until Dís found me and disregarded every bit of protocol and tradition in making me her lady.”

Katla’s thoughts were racing and suddenly, it became clear to her: It had been Thorin’s own pain that had led him to believe that there was nothing more important than duty. For ever to admit otherwise would have meant to admit he had made the wrong choice, to face a pain whose existence he had denied for so long a time. And with that realisation another piece of the puzzle fell into place.

“Does he know you are here?”
“I gather he does, although he has yet to acknowledge my presence.” Skadi shrugged. “I wouldn’t know, though.”
Katla bit her lower lip. “But he does...”
“Do you really think so?”
“How could he not? You are sitting at his sister’s side at every meal!”
“And he still has not even looked at me once.”
“Because he cannot bear to face you?”
“Him?” Skadi laughed mirthlessly. “Afraid of a woman?”

“No.” Katla shook her head. “Not of you. Of what he has done to you.”
Skadi crossed her arms and shook her head.
“But that is why... that is why he gave the crown to Fili.” Katla still chewed her lower lip. “He spoke about the past and the future. And he spoke of a king without a heart.”
“What would that have to do with anything?”

Katla met Skadi’s eyes. “That he finally realised what had become of him after he parted from you. He was opposed to our marriage, but something made him change his mind rather quickly. Fili told me that even after he had agreed to allow me to come back he was still opposed to us getting married. And all of a sudden, he gave us his blessing, and then the crowns. What else could it be than him realising that he was making Fili do the same thing he had done to himself, something he deeply regrets?”

Skadi walked past her and slowly placed her hands onto the rough stones in front of her as she stared into the distance.

“I wish I could believe you,” she whispered after a moment.
“I wish that, too. My heart hurts when I think of what you two must have been through, and especially you, with that... dreadful fate.”

Katla stepped beside her and let the wind cool her face.

“Do you think you can ever forgive him?”
“I don’t know.” Skadi pressed her lips together for a while before she continued. “Some wounds are just too deep and too painful. If he asked it of me, maybe I could, but he will never do that. He is too proud a warrior to do so.”
“Do you really think so?”
“I do.”

The two women stood silently side by side, lost in thoughts of their own.

Finally, Skadi looked at Katla again. “I thank you for your patience and compassion. And I thank you for accepting me as I am, without thinking of my shame.” A small smile appeared on her face. “I would be honoured to call you friend, Katla.”
Katla embraced her then, and as they parted, she smiled at Skadi as well. “Maybe my stone can help you, I would so wish for it to happen.”
“So would I, although I cannot imagine it coming to pass.” Skadi sighed. “Forgive me, but I would like to be alone with my thoughts for a while.”

“Of course.”

As Katla headed down the stairs, she began to feel a strong urge to talk to someone, and the only one she could possibly trust with this was Fili. But how would he react to such revelations about Thorin in the light of what had happened these last six years?

It wasn’t before they were in the privacy of their bedroom that Katla sat beside Fili, who was smoking his evening pipe, and took one of his hands. She told him everything Skadi had told her after a promise to hold his silence and he kept on smoking, though his eyes narrowed as she proceeded. When she had finished emptying her heart to him, Fili put down his pipe and closed her arms around Katla in a wordless embrace.

“I understand a lot of things much better now,” he muttered into her hair after a long time of silently holding her. “It doesn’t mean I forgive him, but at least I understand now.”
“Will you ever be able to?”
“I don’t know.” He leaned back to look at her. “Have you?”
Katla shrugged. “He didn’t do it because he is evil. He did it because he believed it was best, even if...” She broke off and sighed. “Even if it wasn’t. But he is also very proud and very stubborn, a trait, as I have come to know, that is very common in the line of Durin.” She smiled and ran a hand down Fili’s cheek.

Fili gave her a little, crooked smile in return. “So you’re telling me to give in and leave it be?”
“No. It is not as easy as that. But if he ever should ask your forgiveness, and I believe firmly he should, then listen to what your heart tells you, and not your pride.”
Fili’s smile softened. “I understand.”

Then he pulled her close and they lay down together, not making love but just holding each other until they fell asleep.

It was only two days later that Fili received a request from Thorin for an audience at court. Not a request for a private audience, so whatever was on Thorin’s mind, Fili mused, would concern public matters and not the apology he still felt Thorin owed him. He knew Thorin’s pride and stubbornness, of course, and that trying to coerce him would only cause even more bitterness between them.

When the next day came where Fili held his public court, or as much of a court that there was, he realised he was waiting for Thorin with great anticipation.

By sheer chance the second throne that Fili had ordered the stonemasons to make had been finished and set into place the very night before, so that for the first time, his queen could sit at his side as he wanted.
And as Dís watched them, the new king and his queen, for the first time in Erebor’s history sitting side by side to rule the kingdom, she knew that the new dawn for Durin’s people had finally broken.

So it was that Thorin, as he walked across the golden floor towards the throne, could not hide his surprise when he laid his eyes on the king and his queen at his right side.
But he did not falter in his steps as he approached the throne and, to Fili’s surprise, he went down onto one knee and bowed his head.

“My King, I come as a supplicant.”

Fili had the initial impulse to call him uncle and to tell him to stop grovelling, but something stopped him. Maybe it was the look in Thorin’s eyes that had done it, maybe it was his own feelings and maybe both. But then he realised that Thorin must have had a good reason to request an audience during court, and even more so for bending his knee before Fili, in front of everyone.

So the young King steeled himself and nodded. “Speak, Thorin Oakenshield.”

Thorin lifted his head and met his eyes. “I beg of you a change of ancient laws, so that a wrong done within these laws can be made right.”
Fili lifted his eyebrows. “Explain.” He felt Katla’s eyes on him and gave her a hardly perceptible nod. Remembering their talk the other night, he had an idea about what was to come.

“The wrong I speak of happened almost two hundred years ago, during the reign of Thor. Flovin, son of Flói, son of Fror, brother to Thror, King under the Mountain, married a woman whom he later cast out as being barren. When Flovin’s second wife conceived, she was cast out by her family as well and was forced into a life of shame and disgrace as a laszûna.”
Fili nodded slowly. “And there was no one who would have taken care of her?”
“There was a young prince,” Thorin said, his voice rough and low. “He had fallen in love even when she was forbidden to him, married as she was. But he was the first in line to the throne, and his father and grandfather forbid him to come near her. They sent her to the houses of the fallen women so she could not taint this prince’s reputation.”

“I agree with you, Thorin, that laws like this one are cruel and without justification.” Fili nodded towards Ori, who was present in his function as a head scribe. “Find these texts for me, and let it be known,” Fili raised his voice, “That no woman shall further be shamed for something that lies not within her fault!”

After Ori had written these things down, Fili let his eyes wander over the few people attending this court; a few of their old friends of the company, including Dwalin and Balin, and most of all, his mother and her ladies. Dís face was impossible to read.

“Is that everything, Thorin?” Fili rested his eyes on his uncle and predecessor again.
“No, my King.” Thorin squared his shoulders. “I thank you for making sure no woman will ever again be treated this cruelly, but I also beg of you to restore her name and title to what it once was, so she can hold her head up high again as she used to.”
“Since I have no intention of adding to her shame I will not ask her name here in court, but once you let me know, I will surely do that. She deserves no less.”

“There is no need for secrecy, my King.” Skadi stepped forth from the ranks of the queen’s ladies. “Everyone knows who I am, and what my past holds. I have no desire nor is it possible to hide it.”

She stepped in front of the throne. “I still bear the mark Thor had put on me, according to the laws as they were back then. It gladdens my heart that you chose to change them.”
“Then we shall have that mark removed,” Fili said to her. “And I will give you back what once was yours. You shall be the Onyx Princess once again.”
“It cannot be done.” Skadi squared her shoulders. “The ring is made of mithril, as eternal as my shame was meant to be. And even if you remove it by force, the mark and the scar will remain.”

Fili did not fail to notice that while Skadi was standing, holding her head up and her shoulders straight, Thorin at her side was still kneeling as the King had not yet given him leave to rise.
But he intended to see to Skadi first. The woman had been through enough.

“Dwalin,” Fili said. “Is it true? Can that ring not be removed other than tearing it out of her flesh?”
“I fear so, my King.” The old warrior shook his head. “You cannot cut or saw through mithril, the only way to destroy it would be by melting it.”
“I see.” Fili pressed his lips together. Just as he was about to admit being at a loss, Katla leaned over to him and whispered something into his ear. Fili’s face lit up.

“Well then.” Fili got up and walked down the steps from the dais to stand before Skadi, still ignoring Thorin. “If we cannot change the fact that the ring is there, we will change the meaning of it.” He cautiously touched the ring in Skadi’s nose and lifted his voice again.

“Let it be known then, that this ring, and every other like this that might still exist shall no longer and never again be considered a mark of shame! Our warriors have since the dawning of time marked their skin with ink to decorate their bodies and show their imperviousness to pain. Let henceforth our women decorate their skin with all the gold, silver, mithril and jewels they chose to show that they are our treasure, our most protected treasure! Let the women of Durin’s folk show how strong they are and what worth they have!”

When he looked at Skadi again, he could see tears in her eyes, but as she was about to kneel, he took her hands and stopped her.
“No, you shall not thank me, Onyx Princess. I have done you no service other than making right a wrong that has been done to you. Carry your mithril with pride, for it shows that you have prevailed.”
“My King.” Skadi bowed her head and her voice trembled ever so slightly. “My beloved King.”

With that, she stepped back to Dís’s side who embraced her. Both women were silently crying, and the other ladies were wiping their eyes as well.

With that settled, Fili looked at Thorin again. “I am glad you brought this to my knowledge so I could finally do right by her. Was that all, Thorin Oakenshield?”
“I have one more thing to say, my King.”
“Speak, then.”

Thorin looked up and met his eyes. “You said once that you felt like your heart had been carved out when you had been forced to part from your One. It was me who made you do it. I only saw duty, as I have all my life. My only goal in all my life was the regaining of this throne.” His eyes came to rest on the throne that had once been his grandfather’s and for a short time, his own. “I allowed myself to think of nothing else. I allowed myself nothing that could have kept me away from that goal. I hurt myself, but more importantly, I hurt others in the process even more. And even while my actions might be excused with my focus on duty alone, I should have seen far sooner what I did to you and her. My pride refused to let me see it, and that cannot be excused. It was due to my pride that I damaged you almost beyond healing. I shall not ask forgiveness, for I know that I don’t deserve it. I just want to let you know how much I regret what my cursed pride made me do.”
With that, he dropped his head and his shoulders heaved with a heavy sigh.

Fili found himself having crossed his arms behind his back. Just as Thorin always had done when contemplating a difficult situation. He almost smiled to himself, but focussed back on his kinsman who was still kneeling before him.

“So you forced me to part from my One despite you having done it before with yours?”
“And why did you change your mind in the end and allowed our reunion to happen?”

Thorin was silent for a while before lifting his head again. “Because I realised two things,” he said in a hoarse voice. “First, I realised that the pain did not go away as I had thought. I have deceived myself into believing it... after I wronged my One the second time.”
“A second time?”
Thorin gritted his teeth, but he seemed determined to lay all his faults and shames bare before everyone present. Fili would have spared him all this had Thorin just given him a glance he could interpret as a plea, but he hadn’t.

“As you have guessed, the young prince I spoke about, the one who loved the Onyx Princess, was me.”
“Yes, I guessed as much.”
“I found her again in Ered Luin, with the intention of doing right by her this time. But instead of marrying her and making her mine, erasing her shame and giving her a safe haven, I turned my back on her again when Gandalf showed up with a map and a key and told us we could regain the throne I had thought lost forever.”

A long, devouring silence hung in the gallery after these words.

Fili looked up at Skadi who returned the gaze with her facial expression turned to stone. Then he looked at his mother whose expression he couldn’t read, either. He had to admit to himself, he was at a loss as to how to proceed. He finally looked at Katla. His queen met his eyes and slowly left her throne to step beside him.

“Have you ever asked her forgiveness, Thorin?” Katla’s voice was gentle but strong.

“No.” Thorin shook his head. “What I did was unforgivable and I shall not belittle her by asking forgiveness for treating her like she was naught more than a piece of clothing to change at will; a winter cloak shed with spring and picked up again with autumn.” He took a deep breath, and Fili could see the burning of shame in his eyes. “I know, and Mahal knows, how he has punished me after that, but I still do not deserve forgiveness for treating her like this. And this, Mahal’s curse on me after I turned my back on the One he gave me, was why I forced my pride to give in and let you be together again. For under no circumstances would I want the man whom I love as I would my own son suffer what I have suffered!”

“Mahal’s curse?” Fili felt a strange tightness in his chest as he looked into Thorin’s eyes. There is was, the plea not to make him tell, but it had come too late.

Thorin lowered his head again. “Why do you think I never had the heirs for whose sake I gave her up?” And when he lifted his head again, Fili could hardly recognize this broken man as the dwarf who had led them to Erebor and won their ancient homeland back.

“He took it, Fili, he took everything from me. The reason why I have no heirs is...” Thorin’s voice finally broke with shame. “Mahal made sure that after I refused to be with the One he gave me, I would be with no other woman ever again.”

Fili was as if struck by lightning. He remembered Thorin’s reaction when he had confronted him once about the fact that he had no heirs of his own, and now he felt ashamed to have the reason uncovered like this, for everyone to witness. And as he looked at Thorin again he realised that the man kneeling in front of him had broken himself, had shattered his pride and his honour and every bit of self-respect he had. To admit, or even accept, impotency was nigh impossible for any man, and for a dwarf as strong and proud as Thorin, it had been the ultimate blow. Mahal’s curse indeed.

“Uncle...” he whispered and held out his hand.
Thorin looked up again and hesitatingly took the offered hands, letting Fili help him up.

Wordlessly Fili leaned close to him and placed his forehead against Thorin’s. He took a deep breath, but there were no words that could express what he felt. Instead, he pulled Thorin into an embrace, fierce and strong, and after a moment, felt his uncle close his arm around him in return.

“I’m sorry, my lad,” Thorin whispered into his hair. “I’m sorry.”
“I know, Uncle.” Fili closed his arms even tighter around him. “I know.”

“Please release me.” Thorin leaned back and did not meet Fili’s eyes again. “I would like to be alone with my shame.”
“You may go,” Fili said, as it was the only thing he could do for him now. “But you know where to find me.”
Thorin nodded, then bowed, and left the gallery with slow and heavy steps. Fili sat heavily down on his throne again, wishing he would wake up in his bed... and everything had been a dream.

He didn’t notice that Katla and Skadi exchanged a very long look of sadness.

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