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Family Matters

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Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.
--William Butler Yeats, “Easter, 1916”


“… And his Majesty requests that the Lady Dis, honored sister of the late King Thorin II Oakenshield, and honored mother of the two heirs Fili and Kili, accompany this escort back to Erebor, there to dwell as an exalted member of the court, where all may pay homage to her. He further requests that the Lady Dis will accept this token of his esteem, as partial blood price for the grievous loss of her kin.”

The messenger, a dwarf barely past the age of majority, gestured to one of his companions, who came forward with an intricately worked chest. This worthy placed it in the hands of Dis, who had stood silently through the preceding long-winded monologue. So still was she that she might have been carved from stone. The messenger wondered if she had even heard him. It would be understandable, he thought, if she was simply too overwhelmed by Dain Ironfoot’s generosity …

He let out a yelp when he saw the chest hurtling toward him, narrowly missing his head and spraying its contents of precious gems and gold into the road. From stillness and silence, Dis had exploded into violent sound and movement. There came spewing out of her a long string of epithets a battle-hardened warrior would have thought twice about using, and which certainly no lady should have known. She concluded by telling the messenger just what ‘his High and Mightiness Dain Leadfoot’ could do with the offered blood price, a description that made the messenger blanch. “You may tell him also that I ‘request’ never to hear from him again. Pick up that trash and be quick about it, I’ll not have it littering my yard.”

The escort slid quickly off their ponies, scooping dirt up along with the treasure in their haste to pick it up. They remounted quickly, and Dis nodded in grim approval. “Now, get you gone from my home before I take my axe to you!”

The escort wheeled and cantered off up the road. Dis stood silently watching them go, then stalked into her home, slamming the door. Her neighbors, who had come out at the sight of the richly clad escort, now stood huddled in groups, unsure of what to do. All her kin, dead – what would happen?

Through the day and into the night they heard sounds issue forth from Dis’ home – cries, wails and curses, indistinct through the walls but grief-filled. Anyone that attempted to go in was met with flying crockery, books, vegetables, or anything else that she was able to lay hands on. Late in the night the sounds stopped, and the neighbors were torn between going in to see if she’d done herself a harm, or to leave her alone if she’d finally fallen into a healing sleep. Discretion seemed the better part of valor, so they waited.

The morning dawned, the door opened, and Dis came out, pale but composed. She nodded to her neighbors, picked up her broom, and began sweeping her front stoop. She said nothing about what had happened, and no one dared ask.

* * * * *

Two months later, a knock fell on her door. A frown between her eyes, she opened the door and froze. A soft voice asked, “May I come in, lass?”

Dis belatedly remembered her manners. “Of course, Balin, you are always welcome here. Come in and sit down.” The old dwarf entered and shed his cloak, taking the seat by the fire that Dis had indicated. “Food is nearly ready, are you hungry?”

“No thank you, I ate a bit ago on the road. Some tea, though, if you have it, would be good. The weather isn’t good for these old bones.”

“Old bones, indeed,” Dis scoffed. “I’ve always said you’ll outlive us all …. “ Her voice trailed off and she busied herself with the tea. “You should have waited to eat till you got here, you know my cooking is better than any you’d find on the road.”

“That it is, but I was far from confident about my reception, all things considered,” he admitted as he accepted the earthenware mug, taking a sip. “I would have understood if you’d slammed the door in my face.”

Dis touched his face, seeing new lines etched there, and some of the sparkle gone from the wise old eyes. “When I said you were always welcome, I meant it. Would you like a bit of something more warming in that tea?”

“Aye, I would, but not just yet. It’s best I have a clear head for the time being. “ He wanted to say more, but knew to let Dis control the speed and direction of the conversation. She would ask what she wanted to know when she was ready. He sat quietly, sipped the fragrant brew and watching her out of the corner of his eye.

Dis made some tea for herself, more for something to do than because she really wanted it, then took the seat opposite Balin. “A good deal has been happening since you’ve been gone. Nolar finally found his words and asked Haline for her hand.”

Balin laughed. “And high time, too! He’s only been mooning after her for how long now? I think there might have been wagers over whether or not she’d simply take the reins and ask him.”

“If he had waited much longer, she might have. No one gets in Haline’s way when she wants something badly enough. They’re to be wed at the next full moon.”

They talked for some time of commonplace things, the daily joys and sorrows that had occurred during Balin’s absence. He found he had missed hearing these stories – it was comforting to realize that somewhere life had gone on unbroken.

Balin watched at Dis seemed to give herself a mental shake, steeling herself for what she was about to say. “So, what news from Erebor?” she asked, her voice steady on the last word. “How does the reclamation go?”

“Well enough, but slowly. There is much to be done and not enough hands to do it, though more arrive every day. Gloin’s wife and son are on their way, and Bombur’s family.” Balin chuckled. “I think his brood could rebuild the city all by themselves, there are enough of them. The Men are rebuilding Dale, and there will be trade again before much longer, I’m sure. “

“Have all the Company stayed?”

“Dain has been generous, and as I said there is a good deal to do. Everyone with any crafting skill has all the work they can handle. Not that any of them ever need work again if they don’t choose, but it’s good to keep one’s hand in. Ori especially is in his element – Dain has put him in charge of the archives. He’s up to his nose in quills, ink and parchment all day, and I’ve never seen him smile so much.”

“I’m happy for him, such a talented lad deserved better than the mines. What of Dwalin? What is he doing?”

“He stays to serve the new king, who needs someone in charge of his troops. This battle won’t be the last one fought and he knows that. Truth be told, I don’t think Dwalin’s heart is really in it, but right now he doesn’t know where else to go. At least there he feels … close.” Balin had only seen his brother weep twice – once at the great battle that took their father Fundin, and again at the death of his king and heart-brother Thorin. There had been few words from him since that day, and never another smile or song.

“And you? Do you stay to advise the new king?”

“I am going home. Dain has advisors aplenty, he had no need of my counsel. And I have none to give him.”

“You have none to give him, or you have not the heart to give it?” Dis asked softly.

Balin smiled sadly. “You know me too well, lass. No, my heart isn’t in it, either. Besides, I have already served three kings – that’s more than enough for one lifetime. “ He paused a moment, then asked, “How do you fare?”

She shrugged. “I go day by day, time passes. I keep thinking I need to go there, to see … then perhaps I could start to feel again.” Balin took her hand, and she squeezed it with enough strength to make him wince. “That cursed mountain has taken everything from me. Even my heart. I knew, before the messenger arrived, that they were gone, and from that day to this, I’ve not shed one tear. What is wrong with me? I wept for my grandfather, my father, for Frerin, for my beloved Khedrin, but for Thorin, for my babies, I have nothing. Perhaps I’ve used up all my tears.”

“Or perhaps some hurts go too deep even for tears.” Balin paused a moment, then continued, “Thorin spoke of you at the end – he begged that you wouldn’t curse his memory.”

Dis sighed. “Oh, but I did. May his spirit forgive me from the Halls of Waiting, but I did, Balin. For a day and a night, I cursed him in every way I could think of, then started all over again. I finally fell exhausted, and when I woke my sanity had returned. I knew he’d been right – I couldn’t have made them stay home, and if I’d tried and succeeded, they would have resented me forever. If he had come home without my boys, I think I would have killed him myself. But he didn’t. If they died, it was because he could not save them.” A long pause, then she asked, in a voice scarcely above a whisper, “Tell me, Balin, how did it happen?”

“I didn’t see all of it, I only know what I was told later. Thorin had taken many wounds, but still he fought, surrounded by orcs and wargs. A spear thrust finally sent him to the ground, and Fili and Kili stood over him, keeping the enemy at bay. Beorn the great shape shifter charged into the field, slew many of the enemy, and carried Thorin away. Fili and Kili kept fighting until they fell from their wounds.” Balin took a shaky breath. “When they were found, each was clasping the other’s hand. They must have left this world at the same moment, or nearly so. They looked … peaceful.” He had been the one to cover them after the battle, reminiscent of the times he’d covered them as dwarflings when they’d fallen asleep in a tangle of arms and legs.

“They would have done. Neither would have wanted to go on without the other. And they died as warriors, doing what they had been trained to do. I should be proud of them, and I am. It’s just that … it’s cold comfort.”

Balin nodded in agreement. “All were buried with great honor – Dain did them proud. They will meet again in the Halls of Waiting. And one day you will join them there. We all will.”

Balin paused and reached into his pocket. “I’ve something for you, if you’ll accept it.” He held out a carved box.

Fire flashed in Dis’ eyes. “If this is from Dain, I’ve already told him I want none of his weregild.”

”Yes, and I heard how you told him … though perhaps not quite in the terms you used. And I also heard you nearly killed the poor messenger when you threw the chest back at him.”

Dis let out a chuff of disdain. “If I’d wanted to hit him, I would have. Besides … I was angry.”

“I think that was evident. Anyway, this isn’t from Dain, this is from me.”

Dis opened the box and lifted out a locket, intricate filigree constructed of the finest gold in three shades – white, yellow, and rose. “It’s beautiful, Balin,” she said. “I’ve never seen its equal.”

“You might recognize the chain.”

Dis took a closer look at the chain and gasped. “This is his chain – Thorin’s, the one I made for him. It was the first one I really felt I’d gotten right, and I gave it to him on his name-day. He promised to wear it ever after, he was so proud of it … and of me.”

“I remember. It seemed a fit companion for the locket.”

“Thank you.” Dis thumbed the catch on the side of the locket and it sprang open. Enclosed under the clearest glass were two locks of hair, summer-gold and midwinter-dark. “Mahal … “ she breathed, unable to take her eyes off them.

“I didn’t know if you would ever be able to come to Erebor to see them, so I brought some of them back to you. I hope it was right I should do so.”

She seemed almost not to hear him, staring down at the locket, running the chain through her fingers. “My sun-child and my moon-child. Fili, warm and strong, everything thrived in your light. Kili, so changeable, but pulling others to you like the tides. So much joy, so much life, so much love you had. And my brother, the fortress that no storm could topple, you carried the world on your shoulders so that the rest of us might prosper. Were you afraid, any of you? Was it worth it in the end? It isn’t right, this – you all deserved so much better. It just isn’t right … “ Her voice broke.

She looked up at Balin, her eyes welling up and spilling over. His own heart breaking, he held out his arms and she threw herself into them. Her frame shook with her grief, great gasping sobs muffled against Balin’s chest. He crooned softly to her, stroking her hair and rocking her gently as he had when she was a child. He had promised Thorin there would be no tears from him, but it took everything he had to will them back at that moment.

Such a storm could not last long. Slowly the sobs lessened and faded, and she was able to sit back on her heels. One hand wiped the tears from her face, the other still clasped the locket. It took a moment for Balin to find his voice. “I am sorry, child, I had hoped this gift might help. If I’d known it would do this … “

Dis stopped his words with a gentle finger on his lips. “You did right, dear friend. This was what I needed. My heart aches as if a spear is thrust through it, but the pain is welcome. It means I can feel again.” She undid the clasp on the chain and fastened it around her neck. “Thank you for this … and for coming to see me. You will stay the night, of course, to please me.”

“I’d no intention of putting you to any trouble … “

“Nonsense, you’d never reach home before dark, and I won’t have you on the roads alone. Besides, it will be good to have someone to talk to. During the day it isn’t so bad, but somehow the nights are just so quiet. I’m used to the boys making far too much noise. You’d have thought it was a herd of oliphaunts coming in the door after a day at the forge, not two dwarves.”

“You didn’t have them during lessons. How they ever learned anything I don’t know, it was nearly impossible to get them to shut up.” An image of the two young dwarflings, heads together and giggling over their books and parchments, rose in his mind, and he felt his mouth turn up in a smile.

“They learned because they knew I would forbid them to spar with Dwalin if they didn’t do their best. Thorin took Kili’s bow away for an entire week once to make sure he studied, and I thought none of us would survive it.”

“Ah, I’ve always wondered how he scored so high on that examination.”

“Desperation can be a great motivator,” Dis agreed. “One thing I have not missed is the mud! I never could teach them to wipe their feet, and Thorin was just as bad.”

“Well, at least they never wiped their boots on your furniture – Mr. Baggins was not so fortunate.”

“Oh, they didn’t! I hope this Mr. Baggins took a frying pan to their heads!”

“He wasn’t the sort to do that. A most excellent host, likely far better than we deserved at the time.”

“How did he … but wait. I want to hear about this Mr. Baggins, but let us get your pony taken care of, and some proper food into you. You can tell me over supper.”

The pony was bedded down for the night, the lamps were lit, and much was spoken of that evening. Laughter echoed off walls that had not heard it for far too long, and more tears, this time cleansing ones, were shed. Balin did not know if the spirits of the departed could look down on their loved ones from the Halls of Waiting, but he hoped so – Dis’ family would be comforted to see her this night.

“It’s getting late, and you have had a long journey. You must be ready for your bed,” Dis said, rising with a candle in her hand. “We can talk more in the morning.”

“I’ve one last thing to say tonight – to ask, really,” Balin said, gesturing for her to sit. “I have been thinking about this since I left Erebor, and I wish to ask a further favor from you.”

“If I can give it, you will have it, you know that.”

“Hear me out before you promise anything. I want you to consider it well.” Balin paused a moment, collecting his thoughts. “You have lost so much in the past few months. Nothing can repay you for the holes left in your life, but if you would accept it, I wish to offer you a different sort of blood-price. I would like you to come back with me, and share my home. I offer legal adoption as my ward and my heir. I offer this as much for myself as for you. Perhaps two broken hearts can help each other heal, or at least lessen the pain.” Balin smiled sadly. “If you accept, know that you will be doing this old dwarf a great service, likely far greater than he will be doing you. You are a daughter of kings, entering a merchant’s household will be something of a come-down.”

Dis reached out and took his hand. “Being a daughter of kings has brought me little else but heartache. It will be no loss to leave that part of my life behind me. And I have no need to ‘consider’ anything. I would be honored to join your household if you wish it … uncle.” Balin’s eyes prickled with new tears – it had been many a year since she had called him that. “And now, we both need our rest. We’ve a big day tomorrow, and much planning to do.”

It was some days before they were able to set out. Dis made a bride-gift to Haline of the deed to her home – she had no more need of it, and it had seen much laughter as well as tears. It would be a good place to start a life and perhaps raise a family. Possessions were sorted, given away, packed or discarded. She found she wasn’t keeping as much as she thought she might. These were things – possession of one didn’t ease the ache, and the absence of another didn’t widen the hole in her life. The memories they evoked held far more good than bad, but the memories themselves were what she would cherish.

The day of departure dawned chill but bright. As Balin supervised the last of the loading, Dis looked around the now-empty house one last time. Ghost voices echoed off the walls – shouts of children, songs of a winter’s evening, bright notes of jubilation, ready laughter and deep murmurs. These would follow her and be carried in her heart forever. They were part of her, her legacy from all her family.

“Are you all right, lass?” said a soft voice from the door.

Dis touched the locket at her throat, then turned and smiled. “Yes, uncle, I’m fine. Let’s go home.”