"Thorin is dead."
It was a statement, not a question. She said it without preamble, not even welcoming the dwarves in front of her. She did not need the messenger's confirmation. She knew. Had known ever since her brother left the Ered Luin to go on that fateful quest. That doomed bid to reclaim a lost home, a mountain, a hoard of gold. They had said their farewells long before this wintry afternoon.
The look in Balin's eyes as they met hers confirmed her fears before he could nod or say a word. Behind him, Dwalin bowed his head. Dís closed her eyes. Just a moment, a moment of peace as she took in the news of her eldest brother's death. Muffled, as if a sturdy door separated them, she heard Balin report to her.
"…he died a valiant death in battle, Thorin Oakenshield, King under the Mountain." He concluded.
Dís took a deep breath before answering:
"He achieved his dream. He served Durin's folk well in the end."
Balin nodded his assent, but she knew that her words were hollow. Her voice sounded flat and dull in her own ears. Her head seemed to be filled with a viscous matter that sloshed around slowly between her ears.
There would be a time for grief later. It was not here, not out in the open with half the town watching. A town that she had governed in her brother's absence. A town that would continue to look towards her for guidance. Particularly now. Now that they had received confirmation of their leader's death. She could hear the whispers behind her. Could feel the eyes upon her and the dwarves who had been sent to carry the news from Erebor to her. This was not a place for emotions. This was not a place for displaying weakness, no matter how desperate the news. She might not look the part in her work clothes and heavy woollen cape, but she was royalty. And she had learned what that meant through many decades filled with bad news.
Even those who lived and worked inside the mountain seemed to have noticed the arrival of the delegation by now, as more and more people filled the small square where Dís had rushed to meet the delegation from Erebor. She took in the small group of dwarves before her. They looked weary and defeated, wearing travel-stained cloaks and standing next to mud-speckled ponies. None would meet her eye. She would have to see to it that they were made comfortable. Details of her brother's demise and the fate of her sons' newly reclaimed kingdom could follow later, preferably conveyed by her cousins in the comfort of her own home. Looking to her left, she gestured to one of the dwarrowdams who had aided her greatly in the running of the town ever since Thorin's departure.
"Runa, could you…"
"Lady Dís," Balin interrupted.
She looked up sharply at the formal title to see her older cousin fiddle with the ends of his luxuriant white beard.
"Lady Dís," he repeated, voice strained. Or did she imagine that? The liquid swirling in her skull seemed to increase its velocity. She felt nauseous.
"There were great losses in the battle."
She had stopped breathing. Her heart pounded loudly. Her pulse seemed to reverberate through her entire body. She willed him to go on and at the same time found herself hoping that the silence would never end. Time was strangely distorted. An age had passed and yet it was too soon, too much, too quickly, when Balin took in a deep breath and continued:
"Your sons died defending their king."
His voice seemed to echo in a great cavern. She looked at him. He seemed to shrink. Shorter and older than she had ever seen him before. His eyes wide, looking up at her, distraught. The square had fallen eerily silent. Dís just stared at the old dwarf in front of her. He flinched. He seemed to wait for her to say something, to react somehow. She couldn't. She didn't know how. There was nothing to be said or done. Her sons. Her young, bright, charming sons. Dead. She did not seem to be part of her own body. She watched the scene from the outside. She did not feel. There was nothing to feel. Dís was just a hollow shell. Standing in the gathering dusk, surrounded by her people and yet leagues away from anyone. Alone, utterly alone.
Dís did not hope. She had seen too much, had lost too many to still give in to hope, to still believe that there was justice in this world. There was no mistake. This was reality. Nobody came back from the dead. Her sons were dead. Her lively boys had gone to the stone.
She was vaguely aware of Dwalin's presence at her side. It felt familiar to have him next to her. At her left and just a half step behind. Guarding her. Shielding her. From what? There was nothing left in the world that could hurt her. There was nothing left in this world. Her family was spent. Her mother, her grandfather, her father, her brothers, her sons. Her sons. Dead. She was the only one left. The only one who was not yet stone.
A young dwarf stepped forward from the group of travellers.
"Lady Dís, may I express my deepest condolences and my regret at the passing of your sons. Such noble lords and skilled fighters! Now they are sleeping in Erebor, once again in the ancient halls…"
They had not passed. Nobody simply passed. Dwarves died. They died and were given back to the stone whence they came. They were not sleeping. She knew death and it was no sleep. It did not come gently. The euphemisms this child used were doing her sons no favour. She looked at the speaker icily. He was still prattling on about armies and battles, valour and honour like those things mattered. Like anything mattered. Anything but her sons. Her dead sons.
"The valiant young princes, such shining examples of…"
"Fíli and Kíli. Their names are Fíli and Kíli."
A collective intake of breath could be heard when she spoke for the first time.
"Yes, yes, anyways," the barely-bearded youth continued, clearly flummoxed by the interruption, "My father and I would like to express our gratitude and honour your great sacrifice…"
The young dwarf in front of her cringed at her sharp word. He was shorter and broader than both of her sons with none of their muscle evident under his fine garments and none of their expressive features in his doughy face. But he had dark hair and Durin-blue eyes like her brother whose name he bore.
"It was no sacrifice, Thorin, son of Dáin." Dís spat his father's name like an insult. "I did not give them willingly."
She was shaking. She was unable to continue, could not stand this any longer. The world had shrunk to encompass just her and her sons. She was vaguely aware of all the people around her, but she had no strength to face them, talk to them, reassure them, could hardly even see them. She had to get out, had to get away, be alone. Blindly, Dís started walking, mechanically with a measured stride. Don't run. Don't look. Just go home. She did not notice Dwalin holding back young Thorin and growling at him. She was not really aware that he stayed at her side on her way home through the streets of the small town. There were people around her, but they did not matter. She just had to get home.
She opened the door to her house, walked through the kitchen, always too small for a family with three always-hungry males. She stood in the lounge and suddenly realised that she had nowhere to go from here. She was not sure where she had been heading, but it did not feel like she had reached her destination.
There was only cold ash in the fireplace and everything was neat and tidy. The usually cosy room with its stone walls and dark timbers felt empty. There was nobody home. There would never be anybody home again. This was not a home anymore, just a house.
Slowly, Dís walked over to the fireplace. Rekindle the fire. Do something useful. But why? She grasped the stone mantel, willing herself to calm down, to breathe deeply. It was no use. There was a persistent buzzing in her ears, a swirling in her head. Her vision was oddly narrowed and she found herself unable to see anything but what was right in front of her.
A small wooden dog. Kíli had given it to her decades ago. It wasn't a very good piece of work, the legs slightly uneven, the face lopsided. He had gotten much better with his woodwork over the years. Nevertheless, this little dog still had pride of place on the mantelpiece. It had always seemed friendly. Now the dog was leering at her. A reminder of simpler times. A reminder of a time when Kíli had still been alive.
With a scream, she swiped everything off the mantelpiece. The various odds and ends clattered to the ground. Something shattered. Dís did not care. She hit the wall with her hand and screamed again. It did nothing to relieve the pressure inside her. The swirling in her head intensified. She had to hold herself upright with both hands. There was so much in her head. And yet there was only darkness, only a dense fog. She would like to pass out, would like to just not feel anymore. She was granted no such mercy.
It was all in her mind, like waves that kept crashing over her. Everything seemed to move faster and faster, and yet she was still standing in her own house, clutching the mantelpiece. Trying to anchor herself, to be somewhere, to be someone. There was overwhelming pain, but it was all inside her, without any physical manifestation.
She smacked her forehead against the rough stone wall. It felt good. A sharp pain that reverberated through her skull. It was a relief. She sobbed.
She hit her head against the wall again. And again. Harder. Pain. Pain was good. Pain meant that she could still feel. A strangled noise escaped her throat.
The next time, her forehead didn't hit the wall. It hit flesh. She growled in annoyance. She tried again, harder. The same result. Then she just rested her head against the hand that was cushioning it against the wall.
She was sobbing freely now. Loud, angry, ugly sobs. She felt another large, calloused hand on her back, rubbing slow circles on her shoulder blade. The first hand was still resting on her temple, thumb caressing her hair
Dís half-sobbed, half-screamed, occasionally trying to hit her head against the wall again. To feel the pain, the actual, physical pain.
Without noticing how it happened, she found herself turned to face the dining table. The hand disappeared from her forehead and strong arms embraced her tightly as her face was pressed into rough fabric.
Dwalin. The smell of Dwalin. The feeling of not being alone. Of being somewhere, with someone. The tears were flowing freely now as she buried her face deeper into her cousin's tunic. Deeper into that familiar smell.
They stood like this for a long time. Dwalin silent, though his breathing was rugged and uneven. Dís crying. She should probably stop, but she could not find it in herself to care.
Dwalin was solid, he was warm, he was real. Dís did not think she would ever want to move again. Just wait out the rest of her days in his hard embrace.
There was nobody else who would ever embrace her again. At this thought, a painful cry fought its way from Dís' lungs to her throat. She felt her knees buckle and expected to hit the ground, but Dwalin simply held her, pressed against him, his arms supporting her back.
Time did not seem to pass as usual, but eventually Dís found her tears slowing. She was gasping for breath and felt weaker than she ever had before, still feebly hanging in Dwalin's arms.
Dwalin picked her up like a small child; her head still nestled against his shoulder, she let herself retreat into deep reverie as she was carried to the sofa. She was gently set down, a pillow stuffed beneath her head. Her feet were gently lifted and her sturdy boots removed. She let herself be treated like an infant. There was no fight in her. Appearances did not matter and she did not have the strength to perform even the most menial of tasks. Her legs were finally set down and she found herself being covered by a warm patchwork quilt. Rich, colourful fabrics were all around her.
"I'll be right back," Dwalin whispered, pressing the lightest of kisses on her battered forehead. His voice sounded far away and she did not feel the touch as acutely as if it was her own head he had kissed. A different person lay on her sofa.
Dís was floating. Or sinking maybe. There was no way to be sure. There was something soft around her. She felt cold, and oddly, not quite aware of her body. Maybe she could die. Just sink into the softness. Just give in to the darkness.
There were sounds in the background. Clattering, hissing like a flame being lit. A drawer in the kitchen. The door of a cupboard. She did not care. It did not matter. Dís was floating.
She became aware of steps next to her. A heavy weight was eased on the ground by her head and then a clink like pottery being set down.
She felt a large finger smear something cool across her brow. Arnica.
She knew the smell. She used arnica a lot. It came with being the mother of strong-willed, adventurous boys. First, they used to toddle into furniture. Then the climbing phase began. Actually, that never really stopped. There was always a bruise to heal. As they got bigger, so did their fights. There were constant disagreements with some neighbour's lad. They each learned a trade eventually and in the learning lay accidents and more bruises and scrapes. Once they started weapons training, they always sported an assortment of small injuries. Fíli had taken to swords and axes with zeal and showed a natural talent, but constantly pushed himself to work harder, to become better, often to the point of exhaustion. His younger brother had much more difficulty, skinny and small for his age he was barely able to wield even the tiniest sword Thorin had fashioned for him. Kíli too found his fighting form eventually and together the brothers were formidable warriors indeed. They still came home moaning, beaten and bloodied more often than she cared to remember. But there was little a dollop of arnica could not make better. Or a mother's touch. Mostly a mother's touch really. She was always able to help her boys. Until now. Until they went off and got killed.
Dís shuddered. She felt her muscles tense and shivered uncontrollably.
"There, there," Dwalin murmured, stroking his hand over Dís' hair that was escaping her usually meticulous braids.
He was not good with words. He was not the bright brother. And yet he sensed that there was something he could give Dís in these terrible first hours. Some form of quiet companionship maybe, something that did not require the right words. He suspected that there were no right words anyways. There would be time later, time for his brother, for Dáin's son, for all the others that would doubtlessly want to intrude, to talk to Dís. For now she should just be a grieving sister and mother. He could give her little else, but he could give her that opportunity. She was the last one left for him to protect. He had failed all of his other charges. His kings, his princes. And the one he had guarded from what he feared most… Dwalin shuddered. That was the worst of his failures.
Dwalin tried to get Dís to drink some tea. That was something you did with distressed people. Chamomile tea with lots of honey. That was supposed to be calming. And Dís liked sweet things. She did not seem to taste the tea at all. Dwalin suspected that she did not really notice that she was drinking it. She was awake, but her expression was vacant.
He waited. He was not sure what he was waiting for. But he was good at waiting. He had guarded many people, had kept many long watches. Sitting motionless, but always alert and ready to move at the slightest noise. After all these decades, it came naturally. Balin said that was because there was not much in his brain that could distract him. That was not true. There were many thoughts. But they were usually dark and he did not speak about them often, not even to his brother. It was easier to keep those things hidden, to only think about them when he was waiting for something to happen. These past weeks had seen him take many watches. The thoughts kept him awake. The thoughts were darker than ever, darker than the ones he had had after Azanulbizar, darker even than the ones that accompanied the terrible warfare in the tunnels and caves that lead up to that final battle in front of the gates of Moria.
Dís was not moving. She was not asleep; her eyes stared unseeing at the ceiling. Maybe it was good to give her some time to escape into her reverie. Maybe it was wrong to let her do so. Dwalin was unsure about the correct course of action. Usually, he had Balin at his side to make such decisions. Balin knew what to do in any situation. He was the brains, Dwalin was just the muscle. And his muscles did him no good here. But Balin was not here in the house now. Dwalin had insisted that he wanted to be left alone with Dís. They had talked about this at length. In the end, Balin had conceded that he had never been as close to their cousin as Dwalin was and that it might just be a good plan to let him handle this delicate matter. Or maybe Balin had simply agreed because he did not want to bear the brunt of Dís wrath himself. It was unlike Balin to give in to his younger brother. Whatever the reason, Dwalin was on his own now. Had wanted to be on his own with Dís because somehow he had thought that he could make her suffering more bearable. He was not so sure now.
Nothing was gained by dwelling on that though. The small cottage was now enveloped in darkness and becoming uncomfortably cold. With a sigh, Dwalin got up from the floor and moved to build up a fire in the hearth.
In the dim light, he assessed the situation in the small lounge. It was a mere crofter's cottage, not much of a royal residence, but Thorin had insisted on leading a life that was no more different from his people's than it absolutely had to be. Dís boots were still sitting where he had put them upon removing them from her feet. With a sad smile, Dwalin picked them up and put them next to his own on the rug in the kitchen. This was so unlike Dís. She never walked into the house with her boots on and constantly chastised her boys for doing so.
As he turned to light the oil lamp on the table, Dwalin's foot brushed one of the items Dís had scattered around the room in he earlier fit of rage. He bent to pick it up and found that it was the wooden dog Kíli had carved so many years ago. It had not survived the fall unscathed. The back was cracked, the little figurine split in two. Neither head nor tail, nor any of the delicate legs had taken any damage. How strange. How fitting. He closed his hand around the two parts of the small animal, clenching his fist as if he was willing the pieces to mend.
Following the loss of her five sons in World War 1, Amy Beechey of Lincoln, England was presented to King George V and honoured by the King and Queen for her immense sacrifice - but despite her great pride in her sons, she was reluctant to accept such terminology. "It was no sacrifice, Ma'am," she told Queen Mary. "I did not give them willingly."