The day Fíli made her a mother, a healthy babe with a tuft of blond hair and aquamarine eyes. A laughing Jóli bouncing his son on his knees, holding out his hands for him to take his first wobbly steps. The serious look in little Fíli’s eyes the day he became a big brother. The tiny infant that had been Kíli, on the verge of life and death for so long, but always alert, always squirming. Her younger son’s impatience when he was not able to keep up with his older brother. Finding them curled up together in the corner of the bed. Thorin laughing despite himself as he was tackled by the two small dwarflings on one of his rare visits. Jóli handing them their very first tiny wooden swords and the eager looks in their eyes as he explained to them the responsibility that came with such weapons. Fíli half-carrying his brother home after yet another ill-fated exploration of the woods, smiling sheepishly as she chided them, but Kíli already grinning again by the time she was tending to his injuries. Kíli running off from their schooling, not out of spite, but simply because he enjoyed running, hated being confined. Moving in with Thorin, a widow with two small sons. Helping them adapt to their stern uncle who was trying to replace their jovial father. Revealing to them that they were princes, that their uncle had chosen them as his heirs. Kíli now always taking the blame for their mischief, always bearing his punishments with a cheeky grin. The four of them growing together, as a family and as leaders of their people. Milestones reached, goals achieved, challenges overcome, a series of events playing out in her mind.
Then she was saying her farewells again, sending each one of them off on this quest with just a few words. “Go with honour and without regrets,” she had told her brother. She had opposed this journey to Erebor vehemently, but now that he was leaving, she wanted him to know that she supported him to whatever end and that she was proud of him even though he had gone against her wishes.
“Remember that you are the mithril of my heart, Fíli. Use your mind and your strength to stand up for what is right and please make sure your brother is safe.”
“Remember that you are the mithril of my heart, Kíli. Use your energy and your spirit to inspire those around you and please keep supporting your brother.”
The last memory Dís had of her children were their solemn faces that could not quite conceal the sparkle of excitement in their eyes. Their arms round her neck and then the view of them slowly riding away, disappearing into the East.
She needed to know the rest of the story. With an effort, she sat up. She was surprised to not find Dwalin sitting on the floor anymore. He was standing by the table.
“Dwalin, come. Sit.”
Her voice sounded rough. His head snapped around. It was rare that anybody could surprise him, but it looked like he had hardly been aware of her presence at all.
“Tell me… tell me how they…” She could not finish that sentence, but he understood.
“Aye,” Dwalin sighed, “I will.” He lit the lamp on the table, his motions slow and deliberate. The small room was bathed in a warm, orange light. Dwalin squared his shoulders and awkwardly stalked towards her, sitting down heavily on the other end of the sofa.
“There was a great battle,” he began, all too predictably.
“The dragon – it was still there,” Dís breathed.
“No. Smaug is dead. That is, yes, he was still there. But he was not there when… Ach!”
“Did the dragon… was it… Are they burned Dwarves??”
“No! No, they are not. Not burned. No… not that… They were properly buried. We gave them back to the stone in Erebor. Smaug was not... He was still in the mountain when we got there. We made it into the mountain and he was there, just sitting on his treasure.”
“My grandfather’s treasure… the gold of our people… But how could you reclaim Erebor with so few with the dragon still inside?”
“He realised who we were. He suspected that we were in league with the men of Esgaroth. He was so angry… He flew towards the Long Lake and laid ruin to the town. It burned. Just like Dale. It was burned to tinder. All the people, the families there…”
“No! Not that! How could you, Dwalin? How could Thorin? Has our own people’s suffering taught him nothing? Is there no end to his folly! Do you warriors have to keep heaping sorrow upon innocents? Tell me you killed the beast after that! Tell me you fabled warriors were useful for once! Tell me it was the last of its atrocities!”
“Aye… that it was... But no Dwarf laid hand or axe on him. Smaug was slain by Bard of Esgaroth. A descendent of Girion, Lord of Dale. For all the long decades of dreading the dragon, it was all over rather quickly.”
“Oh how can you say that, Dwalin? Do not pretend you are that callous! Think of all the men, think of all their suffering! First Dale and now Esgaroth! Their second loss so soon after the first. But what about your company? Did everybody…?”
“We lived. All were in good health. Except… well, anyways… we stayed in Erebor. Oh Dís, it is wonderful! Badly damaged, but still. It’s… it’s just… well, it’s home.”
“A dearly bought home. What happened? What was this battle about?”
“The gold. Oh Dís, the gold… There was so much of it. Mounds upon mounds. It was beautiful. It was everywhere. It was… it was too much. Thorin. He… he was… it… it got him. The gold.”
Dís gasped audibly at that, hand clutched to her mouth. A sound, half moan, half sob escaped her lips. Dwalin put his hand on her arm, but continued with his report.
“He was not himself. He was vengeful and bitter. He could only see the treasure. He would not let go of any of it. When the men of Esgaroth approached him asking for compensation… he denied it. He turned dangerous and violent, even against… well… even against our own company. After our journey, after everything… he could only see the treasure. He was… despite his promises and his commitment, despite all he went through, despite everything… in the end he was just like Thrór.”
Dwalin buried his head in his hands. Dís knew how close he and Thorin had been. Closer maybe than she had ever been to her brother. Their relationship had never had to be mended and recovered from the ruins. She knew how much Dwalin had looked up to her brother, more than just a cousin to him, his captain and his king even in the darkest days of their exile. It must have come as a shock to him. She had lost family to the dragon sickness before. It was terrifying.
“Dwalin, “ she said gently, “There was nothing you could have done. It’s our weakness. It is in our blood.”
“No!” She flinched at his sharp interruption. “It is not in your blood. It is not! The lads, they were fine. Impressed, but solely by the beauty of Erebor, not by the gold. We all looked through the treasure chambers. All of us were enthralled, Durin or no. But the lads… They just picked up two golden harps and sat there, playing music. They had nary an eye for all the riches. They would rather enjoy playing together than all the gold in Erebor.”
That little anecdote made her smile sadly. At least her sons had been themselves. It was a strange relief. At the same time the knowledge that there was a choice, that it was not just down to fate, made her despair for her brother.
“In the end, we had men andElves on our doorstep, all demanding gold. Thorin would never give it to them. He called upon Dáin instead. Dáin brought half a thousand of his warriors.”
“Not to aid his kin, I reckon… The gold, the gold was drawing him in too. And he was letting it rule him.”
“He wasn’t the only one… Just before the three armies commenced battle, we received word that there was another one about to arrive. They had come crawling out the Misty Mountains. They even brought wargs. They wanted to destroy, destroy every one of us that they had not killed already.”
Even in the dim light, Dwalin must have registered the shock on her face at his grim words. He leaned in towards her. Their eyes met. She could see anger in his, anger at all these developments that threatened to destroy –nay, had destroyed– all that he held dear, but even more so, despair. He had always been her rock. Stoic, unbending, reliable in all circumstances. Dwalin was just there through everything she, her family and her people had endured over the years. Steadfast. Dwalin did not despair. But he had never been the same after the War with the Orcs. He carried many scars from the underground warfare in the caverns of the Misty Mountains, scars that impressed and scared in equal measure, but she had long suspected that his real wounds remained unseen. A goblin army must have been his worst nightmare come true.
“What happened?” Dís promted when Dwalin remained silent. He closed his eyes for the duration of a breath and then, having steadied himself visibly, continued in his report, every bit the old warrior.
“The commanders, Dáin, Bard and even Thranduil, they agreed that we had a common enemy now. Despite their demands, despite everything the Elves have done, that… that vermin is worse. We had sealed off the gate. The three armies assembled on top of the craigs on either side of the valley. Dwarves and men on one,Elves on the other, with just a light rear-guard at the mouth. It worked. They drew them in. At first it worked. The… the beasts took heavy losses, surrounded by all of the free folk. Only in the second wave did they truly attack. It was carnage. Dwarves, men andElves there were, but even all of them together were outnumbered five to one. We could not stand back. They were fighting and dying because of us. We were few inside the Mountain, but we threw down the wall and killed all that had advanced that far.”
He paused, eyes closed once more. Dís found herself both anticipating and dreading the next part of the tale. The part that was sure to include her sons’ deaths.
“Thorin cut through the goblin ranks like a diamond through copper. The lads were in his wake.”
Her boys had been with their uncle. They had all been together. Her family. Sister-sons indeed.
“Bolg, son of Azog, was the leader of those demons. Thousands of them. He was surrounded by the tallest and foulest of them all. Had them guard his precious skin. Thorin and the lads, they went straight for them.”
Dís’ gasp interrupted him. Tears were streaming down her face again. In the eye of the storm, the centre of the battle. Where else would she expect her sons to be? She herself had told them so. Stand up for what is right. Keep supporting your brother. Why oh why? She should have told them to hide, should have taught them to run. They could have run! In fact, running was among Kíli’s greatest joys. He never stopped. Running, running, always running. But always running towards trouble, not away from it. She tore at her beard until Dwalin’s hands captured hers. He continued. Soldiered on to that predictable but unbearable end.
“It was chaos. Melee. Each Dwarf, Man, Elf fighting many at once. It was Azanulbizar all over again. I did not see when Thorin was cut down. I was not there. I failed him. He had many wounds. When I finally saw him on the ground, Fíli and Kíli were standing over him, back to back, defending his body. Loyal. Loyal to the end. To the end and beyond.”
She was crying in earnest once more and Dwalin pulled her against his body. The smell and feel of Dwalin still spoke of safety even when every word he uttered only shattered her world further.
“I tried to get to them, Dís, I tried. Not hard enough. Not good enough to get through that battle. Once again not good enough. It wasn’t us in the end. The eagles turned the tide. Giant eagles as our allies, a hundred or so descending upon our enemies. It really was everyone united against the darkness. The havoc they wreaked gave us hope and endurance after strength had failed us… I got closer then. The lads were still standing. They were still fighting. Grim and determined. They moved as one. Dís, it would have been beautiful had our situation not been that dire. Oh Dís…”
He grabbed her tighter. She could not determine whether that was due to her renewed sobbing at his praise for her sons, or due to the silent tears she could feel falling on her head. Dwalin never cried. Fíli and Kíli had always been emotional. Thorin had shed tears in anger. Balin’s eyes got wet when he recalled the injustices done to their people. Even the oldest, most stoic of warriors had been overcome with grief when the survivors of Azanulbizar returned. Dís recalled Dwalin’s eyes at that moment. They had met hers over the heads of the assembled crowd, weary and broken, but dry and still full of the promise to protect her despite all that had happened. Dwalin never cried. Not until now.
“I did not realise, but Thorin was still alive. He was bleeding from so many wounds I had mistaken him for dead. But our last ally arrived at the scene. Beorn, a great bear we had met on our journey. He went straight for Thorin, breaking those great monsters like pieces of pig iron. Beorn carried him to safety.”
Her brother had been carried to safety. Her brother who had instigated all of this! Her brother, but not her sons. Oh how she regretted his death! How she wished he had remained alive long enough to suffer for his deeds! Her sons’ deaths were his fault! Oh how she would have made him suffer.
“Kíli was distracted for just a moment. He could not tear his eyes from Thorin. It was just a moment… He could not see it coming…”
Dís felt the familiar sensation of being apart from her body again. This was not happening to her. Some other mother was sitting on her sofa, hearing of her baby’s death. She felt empathy for her, but could not quite imagine her pain. Nobody could bear that level of pain. Nobody should have to. Children should not die before their parents. And still there was Dwalin, never faltering in his account of the battle, now almost eager to get on with it.
“Fíli could though. He could see it. The biggest and foulest of Bolg’s guard threw his spear right at Kíli. There was nothing he could have done. Kíli would not have heard him. So Fíli pushed him, pushed him out of the way and took the spear in his own shoulder.”
Dís heard a scream and felt a stinging at her chin as Dwalin once more grabbed hold of her hands. At least Fíli had died protecting his brother. At least that small mercy had been granted to him.
“Fíli fell to his knees, but was back up in an instant, checking to see if Kíli was alright. Only he wasn’t. He wasn’t… That guard had a morning star in his other hand. As his throw went astray, he attacked with that instead. Kíli never had a chance. Never. He was crushed before he realised what was happening. I finally made it to where they were. I had lost all my weapons. I picked up an axe. I killed that monster. I killed him, Dís, I did that! But I was too late again. Bolg had turned his attention to the remaining Durin. His sword was in Fíli’s neck as I was freeing my axe from his guard’s body. I was too late! I wanted him to kill me then… I did not want to live... But Beorn, Beorn decided that for me. He killed Bolg. I did not even do that. I did nothing! Just knelt next to Fíli. I held him. I did that. I tried, Dís, I tried. But there was so much blood... So much blood! I could do nothing. I was there, but there was nothing I could do. It would not stop. I was too late. He was dead after three more heartbeats.”
Screaming, howling. She was punching Dwalin with all her might. It could not be! Never. Not her sons. Not like that. Crushed and cut. Not her sons. Not such despair! No comfort at all. No solace in anything. Her sons, alone, alone in the dark. Why? Why like that?
“It was quick, Dís. At least it was that. Fíli… Fíli died quickly…”
He needed her to know. He needed her to find some comfort. Deaths in battle were never as pretty as the songs made them out to be. They were ugly, unbelievably ugly, all of them, and he had witnessed many. But these deaths… These deaths… Dwalin had seen them in his mind constantly since that fateful day. It had been torture. Well-deserved torture. But recounting them out loud was even worse. He needed her to know the whole story. He needed to go on. But for the moment, all he could do was hold her and accept the punches she threw with a strength that would have been surprising had he not known of her continuous work in the forge. He would bear it. He would bear anything. Anything she could do to him was too small a punishment for what he had failed to do. And certainly too small a punishment for what he had done.
“Kíli…” Dís finally croaked.
With a sigh, Dwalin fulfilled her unspoken request.
“The morning star… it… it had shattered his spine... He was awake when I got to him, but he could not feel, could not move. He was… broken…”
The pieces of the little wooden dog seemed to burn a hole into his pocket at these words. Dís stared at him with such dread in her eyes that he did not dare to continue. The worst, the worst of everything. Fíli unable to protect his brother. Fíli dead, his last sight Kíli being killed in front of his eyes, his last thoughts undoubtedly painful and full of guilt. Kíli, without his brother, without any of the agility and the energy that defined him, so afraid, so alone. Lost, all of them. Lost in the dark. The all-encompassing evil. All of them failures in what they had set out to do. No protection. No youthful energy. Nothing. All lost. Failures. But his failure worst of all. Dwalin steeled himself to continue his tale when Dís spoke again.
“Did I kill them? Did they die for my home, for the glory of reclaiming it, or even just for the joy it would give me to see it again? Did I kill them with my tales of Erebor?”