Author's note: Thanks to Edhla for being my beta.
Of Beginnings and Endings
Summer passed and gave way to autumn; a short, busy season. The dwarves of the Blue Mountains spent it trading with the closest men, services for goods to tide them through the winter. Never have I heard of a dwarf with any inclination towards farming. Those that spent the warmer months working in the villages of men, even as far as Bree, returned before snow made their passage impossible.
Yet in one household there was no flurry of activity. While the rest of the mountain toiled like a hive of bees, a sense of waiting has settled on this wing. It was like a heavy blanket, like the snow that would soon be falling.
As if it strove to shake the feeling, a fire crackled merrily on the grate. Its warmth spread out to reach the children seated on the rug and their nurse in her rocking chair. It was a grand old thing; all polished wood and scrolled arms. Hala's fingers worked deftly at her knitting, bone needles clinking and melding with the chatter of the children. A woollen blanket grew slowly, in earthy brown for dwarves are fond of good, plain colours.
"You should use red," Mim piped up.
"What was that, sweet?" Hala did not stop her needles.
"You should have red in it."
"I like red," Fili added in.
"Oh, maybe the next one dears," Hala said. Her needles slowed just a little. She had once made her husband Tarm a red woollen vest to wear under his armour. When he accepted it, he joked that red was a practical colour. He wore the vest to Moria.
Several more rows of the blanket grew, piling onto Hala's lap, before Fili and Mim were bored. There is, I am told, something particularly alluring in fire for dwarves; even the youngest can watch it tirelessly.
"Hala, can I see mother yet, please?" Fili asked. Hala's fingers did falter this time. It had been two days since the boy saw his mother.
"Sorry darling, she isn't very well." Hala softened her normally gravelly voice, "she would see you if she could."
It was not the first time Fili had heard that answer. He looked at Hala for a moment with wide eyes before resuming his staring at the fire. The light of it reflected in his eyes for they were filled with tears, barely held back. Mim shifted a little closer to him so their shoulders just touched. Hala felt a prickle in her own eyes.
"Time to rest now, both of you," she announced, a little more brusquely than she meant.
With both children in bed, Hala returned to the fire. She added another log from the cane basket and watched a dozen sparks chase each other up the chimney. They winked out before they left her sight. She could have been forgiven for heaving a sigh and leaving her hands idle in her lap. Just a few months ago it had fallen to her to tell two children that they would not see their fathers again. One was her daughter.
"When will Da be back?" Mim had asked, over and over.
Hala's only reply had been to say, "He is in the halls of waiting. And when you are very old, you can go there too."
"I want to be old now," Mim had said. Hala nearly agreed with her daughter.
Dis was unable to tell her son the news, so it fell to Hala. Fili took it better, and worse than Mim; he did not speak for days.
On the hearth, the fire had burnt down to embers. They glowed and pulsed and held just as much fascination for Hala as the flames had. Every few moments she dragged her gaze from the grate, down the dimmed hallway. As yet there was no sound from Dis, but Hala would not sleep tonight. When she heard a soft cry, almost like the mewling of a kitten, she rose quickly.
Usually Hala took a moment to watch her sleeping daughter, marvel at the small hands twisted in the blankets, and the shock of ringlets on the pillow. Dwarf women were few in the Blue Mountains; it made Mim all the more precious. But now Hala did not take the time. Holding a candle in its brass bracket, she pulled back the knitted blanket. Mim clutched it sleepily.
"Sweet, wake up," Hala said, and she dragged the blanket over one arm.
"Come on now Mim." Hala took her daughter's hand and held the candle in front of her. It cast flickering shadows on the walls, picking out the axe strokes. Mim stayed close, nearly tripping her mother, but Hala said nothing more until she had to wake Fili. She shook his shoulder gently.
"Mother?" he asked.
Hala tried to speak once and founder her throat tight. She shook her head a little forcefully and swallowed.
"No dear, Hala. Time to get up."
"Oh," he said softly, rubbing small hands across his eyes. "I'm tired."
"Yes I know. You can go back to sleep soon dears, follow me."
If Balin was surprised to see Hala and the two children, he hid it well. In fact, he was not. He stood in the doorway for only a moment before drawing back to let them through into his quarters. He doffed his nightcap to Hala.
"It is time then." The older dwarf's voice was very grim.
Hala looked to him, warning him with her glance. Balin simply bowed his head. Passing over the candle, Hala put her arm around each child, pulling their little faces into her skirt.
"You must be good for Balin and I will come back in the morning."
"But where..." Mim tried to say, yet her mother turned and gave no answer, pulling her skirts up to her knees as she hurried to find Thorin, and the healers.
In the playroom, the fire had nearly died; only a few embers showed a dull red among the grey ashes. But in Dis' chamber, the stove was stoked and pans of water heated. The healers put sprigs of rosemary in the water to disguise the rusty tang of blood. Everyone in the room was sweating profusely, moisture beading and running down their cheeks. Thorin swiped his cheek roughly, and though none would think it to look at him, the exiled king could be forgiven for shedding a tear.
"Niri?" Dis' voice was not loud; it was raw.
Thorin looked to Hala with wide, panicked eyes. The nurse stepped back, nodding, to allow Thorin room by the bed.
"Dis," he said simply.
"Husband, you did come back," she said, but her eyes were glazed and wandered past her brother's face.
"Do you want to hold your son?" he asked.
"No, your baby?"
In a rocking chair similar to Hala's, Balin sat and waited for the faint sounds in his guest room to cease. He did not mind the small murmurings and shuffling, but he had no children of his own. Balin's gaze often fell on the copper etching above his hearth. There was a softly smiling face there, her silky beard plaited out of the frame. His wife; three days before the dragon came to Erebor.
"Balin, I can't sleep."
In the spare room, Balin added another log to the fire, but he did not watch the sparks dance up the chimney. He turned back to the children; both awake, both clutching the covers to their little chins.
"If I tell you one story, will you be able to sleep?"
Two heads nodded in unison and two pairs of very wide eyes watched him.
"Very well," Balin lowered himself onto the side of the bed. It sunk down a little, and Fili slid a bit closer to him. Absently, he smoothed the covers. "How about the story about the beautiful dwarf woman and the seven Men?"
Thorin and Hala waited in the doorway, just out of sight as Balin drew to the end of the story. He continued even though one of his listeners had fallen asleep. Mim was barely visible; just her hair fanned out on the pillow. Fili had his hands wrapped around his knees, and he dropped his head to hide a yawn.
"So she left with the prince, and the Men often came to visit her under the mountain. And they all lived quite happily..." Balin looked up then, at the doorway, and his face quickly sobered.
"Ever after?" Fili supplied, quite oblivious to the stares that passed over his head.
"You will have to check with your uncle Thorin."
Mim stirred only a little when Hala picked her up. She snuggled her face against her mother's bosom and did not wake. Thorin took Fili by the hand and the would be king's face was set like the stone of their home.
"You will do it now?" she asked.
Outside, a cold dawn was just breaking, streaked with golden, orange and crimson. In the mountain, dwarves carrying candles relit the torches that had been extinguished for the night. Now they were lit again to give a semblance of day. These servants stepped back against the walls as Thorin passed, and they lowered their faces. Fili struggled to keep up with Thorin's quick strides.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
Thorin gave no answer, and Fili had learnt better than to press his uncle. So when they came back to the family's wing he was confused. They passed the reception hall, one of the niches still empty, and stopped in the corridor. There Thorin lowered himself to knees knees and put one hand on Fili's shoulder. He could not fail to notice how small, how fragile, his sister-son was and his hand tightened.
"This is mother's room," Fili said. His face split into a wide grin, "Can I see her now."
"Aye lad, in a way."
It would have been a sight to see the Thorin Oakenshield crouched on the cold stone with his sister-son's face buried in his chest. At first when the child did so, Thorin stiffened, but slowly he thawed and his arms came around to hold him very tightly. He spoke of the great halls of waiting, his words directed into Fili's blonde hair. He spoke of the carved pillars, rising out of sight and the harps and flutes while matching tears ran down their faces. Thorin had feared his sister-son would not understand, but he did. And Thorin knew it was a sad time indeed when a child so young would do so.
One day, Fili would be asked if his uncle ever showed any emotion, anything other than anger. At first he would answer 'no', but then would hesitantly recall just this day. Where his uncle knelt on the stone until his knees were numb, and cried until his beard was wet.
"Are you ready lad?"
Fili nodded and reached for Thorin's hand. He ignored the tears that were still trickling down either side of his nose.
The fire was still crackling, lending an illusion of life to the room. To say Dis looked peaceful in her passing would be a blatant lie. Someone had drawn a blanket right up to her chin; brown like the earth. Above it, her eyes were closed, but that did not hide that she had been crying until her last.
"You should say goodbye," Thorin instructed. His own goodbye had been said. He had said it weeks ago. Fili paced solemnly around the bed and pressed his lips to his mother's cheek. The fire lent it warmth, but it was still too cool. One might think that this would be too much for a child, and in our time it may well have been. But you must remember that this story is not set then, but in a time when fairy tales like Balin's are few. So Thorin put his hand on Fili's shoulder again and nodded approvingly.
"Would you like to see your brother?"
The child shook his head and finally wiped at his cheeks with his sleeve.
"Come Fili, you will."
This room was smaller, and a fire crackled happily as if nothing ill had ever happened. Thorin took a small bundle from the cot and ordered Fili to sit on a low chair. He wriggled into place, but still his small feet dangled over the edge. He swung them.
"His name is Kili. It's like yours Fili, so everyone knows you are brothers." Thorin delivered the baby to Fili's arms, and before Thorin needed to tell him, he instinctively adjusted his hold, cradling Kili's head in the crook of his elbow.
"Why didn't mother take him too, so she could look after him?" Fili asked innocently. He looked down at the baby with his head to one side.
It took Thorin some time to answer; it had nearly been that way. "Because she knew you would love to have a brother. And that means you will have to help Hala care for Kili. Can you promise to take care of him?"
I have told you earlier that this was a time where promises are never made lightly, so Fili continued to look down on his baby brother for some moments.
"I promise uncle."
Then Kili stirred and opened his eyes, murky gaze unfocused, sweeping over his brother. With the suddenness of a fire catching, Fili smiled.