I could have prevented it.
Dis finished tucking the tails of her eldest son's braids into the exquisite silver beads, checking one last time that they were all even. Then she sighed quietly and pursed her lips, because of course she could not have prevented it.
”You're very quiet, mother,” Kili mumbled matter-of-factly.
He sat on the opposite bed, facing Dis and Fili. The room was large and had plenty of furniture, but the beds were comfortable. Sitting on the beds made Dis feel that they still, above all else, were a family. A mother and her sons, who just happened, by chance, to be the last remaining heirs of Thror. Fili would be moving out of the room to the King's quarters tomorrow, leaving Kili behind, because all brothers grow up and part, and the beads in Fili's hair just happened, by chance, to be adorned with the emblems of a king-to-be. Dis smiled faintly.
”It's hard for every mother to watch her children leave their youth,” she said.
Fili's hand came up over his shoulder to take hers. She grasped it, brushing her thumb gently over his knuckles.
No, she thought. Doing anything differently would only have attracted more attention and put Thorin at even greater risk. I did what I could. I have to stop thinking about it.
* * *
When Dis was young, she had experienced a brief infatuation with the tall, tattooed, mohawk-haired dwarf that seemed to follow Thorin around wherever he went. Later, she had often wondered if her interest in Dwalin simply originated from her adoration of her eldest brother. If he liked something, she usually ended up liking it to – or at least trying her best to do so. Either way, she believed that it was her unusual perceptiveness toward both Thorin and Dwalin at that time that had made her notice the changes that no one else seemed to observe or draw the relevant conclusions from.
It seemed to happen over a single winter – the one when Thorin and Dwalin had been away on one of their longer training camps. Frerin had been a year too young to be allowed to go with them. When they came back, Thorin was calmer in Dwalin's company than before and somehow more tense in everyone else's. Dis perceived the change with confused frustration and instinctively tried her best to win her brother back again, which for a long time only made him more distant and short of temper.
Eventually, there came a day when Dis was in a mood so horrible that she decided to sit outside the door to Thorin's room and sulk until he and Dwalin would come out again. She had almost fallen asleep with her back against the cool wall when the sound of footsteps broke through to her clouded mind. Her head jerked up, and she found herself looking at Frerin.
”Aren't they letting you in?” her youngest brother asked, his voice filled with surprise and annoyance.
”Um. No, they –”
”– I haven't tried.”
Frerin's voice became loud enough to echo sharply against the walls. He took a step toward the door and reached out for the great knocker.
Dis felt a shiver run through her body that turned her cold in an instant. Something was wrong. Frerin must not knock. He must not.
”No! They –”
She faltered, thinking desperately while feigning another yawn to buy herself time.
”Um, don't disturb them, alright? I talked to Thorin earlier. They had some things to do. I just decided to wait here.”
Frerin looked at her and shrugged.
”Alright,” he said slowly, raising his eyebrows at her. ”Have fun waiting then.”
He threw her an amused smile and was off again.
Dis sank back against the wall, feeling confused and light-headed. The next moment, she frowned and jumped to her feet, walking quickly over to the other end of the corridor. She arranged her skirts and sat down again in her new spot. From here she could see everything, but would be able to escape without being noticed as soon as the bolts and locks of Thorin's door would begin to scrape and click. Please, come out soon, she thought, as her heart hammered in her chest. I don't want to be part of this.
* * *
Men and their fears. Deep down, they were all afraid that it would happen to them: losing sanity, being swept up, succumbing to acts unthinkable. She had never had to fear that, and fear is what breeds hatred in the first place. She knew that she could afford greater indifference than both her father, her brothers, and her sons. She never helped Thorin to break the law, and she never let him know that she knew. He made his own choices, but she protected him. She protected him, because she did not fear his crime but the discovery of it that would inevitably cost her a brother.
Then, for a few confused moments, Thorin's secret being discovered was the best thing that had ever happened to her. When the first scouts came running back into the mountain, bringing word of the return of Thorin's company, Dis came out of the mountain herself – dragging her long skirts in the muddy grass in the company of six anxious and fully armoured guards. From the height of the plateau at the front gates, she was able to see the company herself long before they began to climb the last slope. She spotted her sons in the front instantly, and her heart took a leap of joy. A moment later, she realised that her sons riding alone in the front meant that … She called out for her guards and began to stumble down the descent.
Fili and Kili got off their horses and scooped her up in their familiar embraces, almost knocking the air out of her lungs. The ground swayed under her.
”How did he die?” she asked immediately – her voice no more than a whisper.
Fili cleared his throat harshly and threw a glance at the guards.
”He hasn't,” he answered quietly.
Kili hugged her closer, and she patted his back absently. Not dead? What then? Maimed, lost, taken captive?
”But where is he?” she wondered desperately.
Her sons exchanged glances over her head. She felt herself tremble between them.
”In exile,” Fili whispered at last.
Her eyes widened, and, for a few moments, she felt nothing but an immense relief coming over her in a single, great wave. Her brother alive, free, possibly unharmed. Then she turned and saw Kili's face, and reality hit her, and everything turned utterly dark again.
She had learnt the rest of the truth later. She had never blamed Kili for giving it away. If anything, she had blamed herself. Could she have raised her sons differently? Could she have done anything against an entire people with a history, a culture, and a law that went thousands of years back?
* * *
Dis gathered her skirts and began to climb the stairs that ran along one side of the throne room. She was done inspecting the preparations from the ground and had decided to have a look from the balconies where most of the people would gather to watch the coronation. Arriving at the first landing, she threw a glance upward and noticed suddenly that she was not alone. On the second landing, clad in the ceremonial attire of the Royal Guard, stood Dwalin. Dis hesitated, and she realised that she had not spoken to him since the day when the company returned to the Blue Mountains. Then Dwalin turned his head and acknowledged her, and she took a deep breath and gathered her skirts again.
He kept looking out over the room until she reached the landing and halted beside him. The clothes and armour were beautiful, but his face looked as worn and tired as the day he had come back with her sons. He turned and greeted her politely, and she responded and turned back to the room, looking up at him from the corner of her eye. The years and the wars have not been kind to you, she thought, becoming aware of the struggle between compassion and contempt within her. Dwalin cleared his throat.
”He's not dead.”
His whispering voice was hoarse but gentle – a broken attempt to comfort her, or a poorly disguised effort to assure himself of the truth of his statement? Dis straightened and took a slow and careful breath to keep the hurt and scorn out of her voice when she answered.
”How do you know?”
A long silence followed, growing between them like thorns. No, she thought darkly. No, you don't.
”You didn't renounce his name,” Dwalin mumbled suddenly.
Dis turned away a little more.
”Neither did you,” she said, still trying to keep her voice neutral, unthreatening.
It came out wary, though, and the words sounded like threats in themselves. Cloth and metal rustled and clinked beside her, and Dwalin's heavy footsteps retreated rapidly up the next flight of stairs. She held her breath for a moment. You're right in one thing, she thought. I may have protected my brother, but I'm not your ally. You were supposed to take care of Thorin. You were the one who could have prevented this. For Durin's sake, Dwalin, you were supposed to take care of him!