Spring sunlight, a scent of dust and horses and thatch, and the hum and bustle of everyday life filled the small village in the Ettenmoors on what seemed to be an ordinary afternoon. Indeed, it was ordinary—for most of the inhabitants.
Yet at the smithy, at the edge of town, was one for whom the afternoon was anything but ordinary; though the event which was about to occur was not an unexpected one. It was a matter only of timing; the when was uncertain—the if was not.
For now, though, the regular ring of the hammer was the only sound to be heard, and the smith was silent amid thoughts that might or might not have to do with such weighty matters as fate and destiny.
He was tall for a dwarf, with a majestic set to his broad shoulders that made him look taller. His proud carved features shone with sweat in the warmth of midday, but his ice-blue eyes were focused untiringly upon the blade he now forged—a thing of sturdy beauty and elegant strength.
Despite the ringing of the hammer, catching the smith unawares was a difficult feat, accomplished by few. And yet an old man leaning on a staff, dressed in gray garments that were kept from being anonymous by a conspicuous pointed hat and a scarf whose silver threads glinted in the sun, did just that. He stood for some time watching the smith at work, his keen eyes following the making of the blade, until at last he spoke.
The dwarf turned quickly, his dark locks tossing at the movement. "Gandalf the Gray." The words, rumbled out levelly, did not betray the sensations of anticipation that coursed through his veins at the very sight of the wizard. If Gandalf was here…
Gandalf smiled wisely yet enigmatically—as was his wont—in reply, and for a few moments they surveyed one another. Thorin found himself wishing that Gandalf had not chanced upon him at his work; he was not ashamed of his labor, but the wizard was not one of his kin or even his race, and as such he would have preferred to have been arrayed with at least some tokens of his position and lineage. There was nothing he could do about it now, so he cleaned the grime from his hands with a rag that lay on his workbench and then folded his arms across his chest in a gesture that was perhaps unnecessarily defiant. "Well, wizard?"
Gandalf's eyebrows signaled that he was both amused and affronted. "Wizard? I have a name, Master Oakenshield—and I know you have not forgotten it, as you said it but a moment ago. What offence you would take if I shouted out "dwarf!" as though I were no more than an impudent fellow whose horse had thrown a shoe?"
Thorin permitted himself the barest hint of a smile. "Well, Gandalf. You have come with news?"
"I do not bring news—news brings me, one might say." Once more the wizard lapsed into silence, but it was brief. He leaned against his staff and peered sharply out from beneath the brim of his hat. "It is time, Thorin."
A single candle flickered on the table, and Dís watched as a fat drop of tallow splashed down. The candle was waning, but there would be no need for another. Her work was almost done; she twirled the stylus between her agile fingers—which were slender, for a dwarf's—and gazed with pride at the embossed designs she had been working on the leather scabbard.
Fíli would be pleased.
Her elder son, wielder of two swords, had worn through more scabbards than his mother could count, and on the eve of his birthday, it seemed only right to gift him with one sturdier and more elaborately embellished than any previous.
He will be 81, Dís realized, and shook her head in wonderment. True, he was hardly grown to manhood in dwarf years, but nonetheless—could so many winters have passed already?
She closed her eyes and let her memory drift back to when her eldest had been a dwarfling, a small bundle in her arms, with golden hair that was surprisingly soft for a dwarf, but that had been like his father's—
Dís's smile turned to a sigh, and she plied her stylus in silence for a few more moments, letting the task at hand fill her mind rather than remembrances that must always be fraught with pain. She tried instead to think of the sparkling eyes and youthful vigor of her two sons—Fíli, the eldest…brave, bold, and kind—and Kíli, the youngest, whose brown eyes (her husband's eyes) twinkled with mischief, who was sweet and eager and lovably naïve.
They are good lads. Princes, too—with Durin's blood running in their veins—but she did not much like to think of that. Let them be among the simpler of their kin for a little while longer…with few cares, and only ordinary responsibilities…
Fíli, she knew, could not always be protected. He was the eldest, the heir to her brother. Thorin Oakenshield, King Under the Mountain—one who, though mountainless and crownless, still held the hopes of their people in his hands. Fíli would one day have to bear that weighty and thankless task, but Kíli…
Kíli will be mine. Always. Dís twisted a few dark strands of her hair around her shoulder and began to redo one of her braids, as a means of diffusing her agitation. I can't let them both leave me.
Hush, she ordered her thoughts. You will not have to. There is no cause—no quest, no—
A pounding at the door shattered what was left of her composure. At first she wondered if her sons had returned from hunting—they had been chasing a herd of deer all day—but she knew that they would have tumbled through their own door with no such formality as a knock.
Dís rose, strode forward, and closed her fingers around the intricate knob for a moment before opening it. When she did, she gasped in surprise. "Thorin!"
Her brother's grave, handsome face—how much he resembled the portraits of their grandfather in his youth which had hung in Erebor—brightened with a faint smile. "Dís."
Tenderly, they placed their hands on the other's shoulders and rested their foreheads together. Then Thorin's smile faded. "We have much to speak of."
There was something in his tone that sent a chill through Dís, though the night was a warm one for April. This must be no ordinary visit.
No cause…no quest…The comforting thoughts were less reassuring than they had been a moment ago. "Come inside, brother."
"Where are the lads?" Thorin asked, stumping inside and casting a glance about the small yet well-furnished home. He unclasped his traveling cloak and folded it over his strong forearms.
"Out hunting. They'll be overjoyed to see you."
He ought to have smiled at that—his young nephews were among the few who could still bring a smile to the face of the dispossessed king—but he only frowned deeper.
"Sit by the fire," Dís prompted. She would rather see their homely hearth flames reflected in his haunted blue eyes than the blaze she could see lingering there now, though it had long passed—the flicker of dragonfire.
Thorin obeyed, and for a few moments brother and sister sat in silence. "You must be hungry."
He did not reply. His mind was on other things clearly, for it was unlike any dwarf—even one so regal as her brother—to be unmoved by an offer of food.
"Dís, I spoke with the wizard today."
"What wizard is that, Thorin? Even we of the royal family have not such high friends as you—I know no wizards." She had meant to tease him, just a bit, as only she could—but there was no laughter on her lips. She had not seen her brother so grim, so determined, in many years. She feared what his next words would be.
He did not answer her question, but said only, "It is time."
"Time for what?" Dís pressed her hands together so tightly that the edges of her mithril wedding ring pressed sharply into her skin.
Thorin's brow furrowed earnestly. "To take back Erebor."
Dís could not find her breath for a few seconds. At last she whispered, "But who—"
"Our people. I will lead. Balin, Dwalin, Oin, Gloin—there are others." His hands—strong, weathered, skillful…a king's hands—were clenched. "We are few in number, but I leave in a few days to meet with more of our kin. To see if Dain will join me. To see if any of the Seven Kingdoms remember whence they came, can still feel dwarrow blood run red in their veins, to—"
His words stirred her own blood, but Dís would not allow herself to be swept away by one of her brother's fine speeches. "Why do you come to me, then? To bid farewell?"
She knew that was not the reason. His eyes fixed on hers, clear blue depths tinged with shadow. They both knew what he would ask. They both knew that it would cause pain. But he would still ask it, and she—
She did not know what she would do.
"I came," he began, and then his deep voice faltered—an unusual occurrence. He reached out and laid his hand against her cheek, tangling a few of her dark braids gently between his fingers. "Dís, I know this will be difficult for you. But Fíli is my heir—the next in our line. Honor, tradition, and need demand that he accompany me on this quest."
Thorin watched Dís's face grow pale, even in the golden light of the fire. "No."
"Dís, he is of age. Older than I was when Erebor fell. And though he knew it not, Erebor is the kingdom he will one day rule. It is right that he should come."
"No," said Dís again, but he could tell from the quaver in her voice that her resolve was weakening; that she knew that his reasons were right.
He took one of her hands in his—it was so much smaller, though still strong as any dwarf's hand—and pressed it in a wordless attempt at comforting her. "I will protect him. You know that I love him as I would my son."
"But do you love them both?"
The question startled him. How could she doubt his love for Kíli, the baby of the family, who had never really outgrown his impish tricks and boisterous bravado? Fíli, though golden-haired, was a near self-portrait of Thorin himself; when he looked at the lad he saw the makings of a future ruler, as yet unmarred by the bitterness that had shaped his uncle. But he loved Kíli equally—Kíli, who was so much like Frérin…impulsive, affectionate, incorrigibly mischievous. "You know I love them. I would live for them or die for them, if need be."
"If you love them," Dís said slowly, as though she had made a painful choice but one that she would not go back upon, "You will not separate them. They cannot bear to be apart, those two. If you will take one son from me, you take them both."
It was Thorin's turn to stubbornly answer, "No."
"I am not giving you a choice, Thorin. If you wish my approval, those are the conditions. They both go, or neither go."
"I need Fíli," Thorin answered. He had justified that—it had not been easy. By Aulë, if there had been a way to keep both of them out of this—
"You need Kíli, too, then," she argued.
"I love the lad, but he would be no help on the quest," Thorin replied.
"Not for the quest! For you!" Dís shook her head, sending her dark braids flying about her face. "I saw, Thorin, the sickness that ate away at our grandfather—I know that you tried to help him, and could not. You and Fíli—both of you are Kings. And I fear for every King of our people, that they might suffer that fate. Better to be poor and honest and bitter than to be ruled by power and greed! Thorin, Kíli's heart is pure. He is only a lad—and if he goes he will help you remember who you are at every step of the way…a great King with a great heart."
Still Thorin shook his head, his jaw tightening. "No. I know that it will be hard for the lads, but they cannot both come. If Fíli comes with me, I can protect him. He is lighthearted, but also wise for his years. He is loyal and brave, and will follow my every command. He is strong, but not willful. Kíli is too reckless—openhearted and daring, acting out of good intentions but not heeding the dangers about him. You know who he resembles, Dís. You knew our brother. He was much the same—foolish, fearless—and you know what his end was. I could not protect him—I cannot protect Kíli. And if I were to watch him suffer the same fate…" he could not finish, for the very thought of his sweet, eager, innocent nephew hewn by orc blades, as his brother Frérin had been, was too much to bear.
Dís's eyes misted with the tears her brother was too proud to shed. "They are not you and Frérin," she said gently, taking his face between her hands. "And though I feared that the dragon sickness might have a hold on, you are not our grandfather. Perhaps I was wrong to doubt. There is strength in you, brother."
Thorin could feel his resolution crumbling. He would give in to her—and she was right—but a sense of dread, dark and heavy, filled him. "If I do this, I can only promise that as long as I live and fight, they shall be protected. But if I am to fall…" He stopped, disconcerted by the tears the brimmed in his sister's eyes, but she answered quietly, "I understand."
"I would lay down my life for them many times over if I could, but Aulë grants us but one on this earth," he whispered. "If I could guarantee their safety—"
"But you cannot."
He met her eyes steadily, but when he spoke his voice was low and hoarse with emotion. "I know that I ask too much, without comfort for you. And yet I ask it."
"And though it brings me pain, I choose to grant the blessing you ask," Dís whispered. "For my sons are not mine to give if they are not also yours. Uncle and King—you are the only father they have known for so long."
"I cannot take Gamil's place. It is he who has watched over them, from the halls of Mandos—"
"But you have watched over them here," Dís broke in. "As much as you could, as often as you could."
Thorin had not time for to reply, for the door burst open and the two returned hunters tramped in, jostling each other with brotherly good humor and shouting out to their mother that there was a stag hanging from the rafters outside.
"Venison for weeks, more thanks to me than Kíli," Fíli said proudly, giving his brother an affectionate nudge, but both stopped short when they saw Thorin.
"Uncle!" Joyful surprise was instantly etched across the two young faces, and Thorin's heavy heart was lifted even as he felt another twinge of uncertainty. Fíli, mindful of the respect due his uncle as king, bowed—though Thorin could tell that it was all he could do to keep his gleeful smile in check. Kíli had no such qualms, and threw his arms exuberantly around Thorin. Seeing that Thorin was not displeased by this, Fíli joined them in an instant. Kíli stood back and demanded excitedly, "When did you come? How long are you staying?"
"Uncle must be tired," Fíli reminded him.
Thorin shook his head. "No—think not of that. I came…" he looked at Dís, not wishing to cause her distress by repeating his reasons. At length he trusted to her forbearance and explained himself.
"To reclaim Erebor?" Kíli asked excitedly, when he had finished. "Fíli, we are to accompany the King Under the Mountain as his heirs, on a quest of daring and—"
"His heir, and the heir's younger brother," Fíli corrected teasingly, but Dís could see that he was mindful of how great the task was. "Thorin, do you deem us…ready?"
"You are both of age," Thorin answered gravely. "You lack experience, but not an understanding, I think, of what this means to me—and to our people. I do not order you to join in this endeavor, I only ask it."
"But you are the King," Kíli said, wondering.
Thorin sighed, unsure why the words had discomfited him. "A King leads more than he commands."
His nephews' answer was eager. "And we will follow!"
The words seemed to hang in the air; Thorin found his eyes drawn unwillingly to his sister's face. She was calm, but pale—and he could see a tightening at the corners of her mouth and eyes, as though she were holding something back with effort.
When she caught his gaze, she rose quickly and moved to her worktable, taking something in her hands. It was an intricately tooled leather scabbard. Fíli's eyes lighted up when he saw it, all the more when she handed it to him.
"I did not make it for this quest, my son, but that does not matter. It will serve you well."
"It is magnificent." Fíli beamed with delight.
"It is well-made," Thorin agreed, casting an appraising eye on the leatherwork. Though it was not a true distraction, he would rather think of the technical details of weaponry than of what he was doing.
Taking your sister's sons from her, leaving her alone—
They choose to come. And she chooses to let them.
Still, the excitement of his nephews could not wholly remove the shadow from his mind. As they prepared for the journey ahead—they would leave at first light—he could not see Dís's affection for them without also seeing how sadness turned her motherly smiles gray.
When we reclaim Erebor, we shall all live in happiness together…he told himself.
If, another part of his mind taunted. Not when, if.
They bid farewell in the gray light of morning. Dís had reflected how her sons were not naturally early risers, before realizing that it would be a long time—if ever—until she would have knowledge once more of their daily habits.
Partings ought not to be overly sentimental—Dís knew better than to make a show of crying. She was a daughter of Kings; accustomed to hardship—and she had friends and kin nearby. The loss of her sons was only…everything.
"I know you will make our race proud, but make me proud as well," she said at last, busying her hands by giving Fíli his two swords, resplendent in the scabbard she had crafted, and arranging Kíli's arrows in his quiver. When they were armed, they stood about her in unusual silence for a moment—her sons, looking far more like warriors than she might have wished. Thorin stood apart, his arms folded, waiting with a patience she knew did not come naturally to him. She appreciated that—that he understood her need for a few last, precious moments.
You are being brave, she told herself, and tried to smile.
"Mother, you are not worried—surely—" it was Fíli who had spoken, her dependable one, the one who always could read her expressions, no matter how clever she thought herself. In another moment she felt Kíli's hand take hers. Of course. Her youngest. Impulsive and affectionate.
"I will be alright," she murmured. She hadn't meant to let herself say it, but she could not keep from adding, "But take care—of yourselves and of each other. Promise me you will be careful."
"Mother!" Kíli protested. "We'll have a wizard with us! We're fighting a dragon, yes, but it's one. One against thirteen of the best dwarves, and a wizard! Mother, Fee"—he nearly slipped into the use of a childhood nickname, and then caught himself "—I mean, Fíli—and I aren't afraid of fighting an army."
"Or two." Fíli was slightly more subdued than his brother, but Dís knew that that was only because Thorin was present and he was trying to fulfill the role of the maturing heir, ready to depart on his first quest.
"Or three," Kíli rejoined.
"What about four?" Fíli's eyebrows flicked upwards in a way that reminded Dís of Thorin in his most humorous moments.
"Five!" Kíli's brown eyes twinkled jubiliantly. "Five armies, mother. That's what it would take. Have you so little faith in the race of Durin? In your sons?"
Dís threw her arms around them one last time, a golden head on shoulder and a dark one on the other. They nearly squeezed the breath out of her, those sons of hers—how had they grown strong and broad and bearded (or almost bearded, in Kíli's case) when it seemed that but a few moments ago they had been babes?
She pressed a kiss to each of their cheeks and said, with a mother's laugh—that is, a laugh that is half a tearful sigh—"I have faith in you, my sons. And faith in your uncle. Faith that you will do what is right, that you will succeed."
Yet for all the warmth the spring sunlight granted, for all of what should have been an ordinary morning, for all the bittersweet joy that the laughter of her sons fading into the distance could give her, and for all the strength and determination her brother held on his kingly shoulders, she could not, try as she might, have faith that they would return.