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The Slowing Pulse

Chapter 1: Chapter 1

by cynical21

The Slowing Pulse

"I need to share the air, warm
as the edge of autumn—a slow-turning season,
when the pulse slows, green to yellow, to red—slow
as the syrup slipping over the edge

"of your plate this morning, when I called your name,
knew from the sound of your empty bed
that the shrapnel of broken stars cut you
from me, from me, from me"

- On the Night They Took Your Life -- Lindsey Jaggers

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"They go now to their places in the halls of their fathers, where they will be honored and received as heroes, as Mahal heralds their arrival. They will never know pain nor loneliness again. Our world is forever brighter for their having lived and forever darker for their absence."

They were the words of ritual, perfectly intoned, and the great hall was completely still as the last of them was spoken.

Silence - the kind that would never be broken again.

The silence of a mother's grief.

She had stood perfectly erect, unmoving, steady as stone, throughout the ceremony. This was dignity - a debt she owed to her brother and her sons.

She would not shame them with a show of weakness.

Her eyes moved from one to the other, falling first on her brother.

Do you hear me screaming, Thorin? Can you tell that the calm is just a mask, that I am torn asunder by a desire to rage and take my vengeance, against the gods, against these fools who stand here and pretend that their observance of ritual can make any difference? Against you.

Dis blinked. Surely she had not really allowed herself to think that. Only . . .

Yes, she had. They had promised her she would not have to endure this; they had all promised. Fili, dimples on full display as he'd favored her with his brightest smile; Kili, beautiful dark eyes aglow with the warmth of his love. She had believed them; she had trusted them. But most of all, she had put her trust in Thorin - the brother who had spent his life defending her, protecting her, holding her and her beloved sons in the shelter of his royal patronage.

And this - this is where it ended.

She found she could no longer bear to stand there and endure the unendurable. She had to move. Others might object, might want to stop her, but she was the Queen Mother . . . wasn't she? Okay, so that was a bit of a stretch. Someone might quibble - legitimately - that she could not be the Queen Mother, since the son who had been the true heir to the crown had died first while the king lived on, if only briefly.

Her eyes shifted briefly then to another figure, lying so still that it was unnatural. He, who had never been able to remain still for a single moment in his life, should not be so rigid, even in death. Kili, who had inherited the title of crown prince and worn it nobly, if only for a few precious moments.

Only one person had been present to witness his fierce battle with the Orcs as he'd made a desperate attempt to avenge his brother; the elf maid, Tauriel. She had been long gone by the time Dis had arrived to initiate the formal period of mourning for her brother and her sons, but she had left behind a brief written account of Kili's heroic efforts, so that his mother and all his kin would know of his courage and gallantry and that his sacrifice had preserved the life of another.

Dis and Tauriel would never meet, would never exchange a single word, and the description of the final moments of the youngest of Durin's sons was straightforward and stark, without emotional context. Yet, somehow Dis knew - knew what the elf maid could not allow herself to say. The she-dwarf did not claim to understand it, but she knew it nonetheless. Her son, her beautiful baby son, had not died alone and unmourned. Kili had been much loved throughout his life, but even more so, perhaps, at the moment of his death.

It should have shocked her, she supposed. Love between an elf and a dwarf was unprecedented, and almost no one would believe it possible. But then she remembered the beauty and charm of the smile that would sometimes light up the eyes of her younger son and realized that she was not so surprised after all. Anyone who would refuse to consider such a thing possible had obviously never known her beloved Kili well enough to be enchanted by his free spirit and bold heart.

She found no comfort in that thought, but hoped that, in time, she might. But it did not help now; now she needed to move; she needed to assert her right to express her grief as the sole remaining member of the line of Durin.

Nevertheless, perhaps there were those who had the right to dispute her claim of position in the hierarchy of the royal family, but she could not worry about that now, for there were no options. What she had to do must be done immediately - or not at all, and would anyone even try to interfere with whatever she might choose to do at this moment - this moment that marked the end of the world as she had known it?

She was pretty certain no one would dare.

She moved slowly, the heavy train of her silk gown - the traditional deep gray of mourning for Durin folk - flowing behind her. She noted distantly that both Dwalin and Balin stirred as if to step forward and impede her progress, but, in the end, neither did. This was her right, even if it was one which was seldom invoked.

It was an accepted tenet of the burial ritual that the figures laid out so perfectly atop the ornate funeral biers were only empty vessels; symbols of what had been lost. Thus, once the elaborate preparation was completed, most preferred to maintain a respectful distance, and would approach only to offer up tokens of respect or affection. The assortment of finely crafted leather samples and hand-wrought metal objects - vests, gloves, pouches, diadems, daggers, brooches, clasps, bangles, many studded with precious stones - strewn around the bodies attested to the degree of love and adoration which had been directed toward these three. The tokens would go with them when they were transferred into the vaults reserved for them, deep in the heart of the mountain.

Traditionally, from this point forward, they would be touched only by those who would carry them there.

But it had happened in the past. It was not completely unprecedented for the sole survivor of a royal family to claim the right to a final farewell. None would dare interfere, although the quick look of alarm on Balin's face expressed his misgivings. He wanted to step in - to save her from herself - but she would not be deterred.

Dis felt the warmth of sunlight touch her skin as she moved, and she almost cringed away from it. How could the sun shine so brightly? How could it be that winter had melted away in the aftermath of the bloody battle so that a surge of the unexpected warm weather that would, in later centuries, come to be known as Indian summer could announce itself so loudly and perfume the wind with the fragrance of life reborn?

How could life just . . . continue?

She paused first beside her brother and studied his features, knowing that it was probably petty of her to be grateful that the blade of the Defiler had failed to disfigure his face. There was a wound, of course; it would have been too much to expect that such a battle would leave no mark at all. But it had been well mended, and served now only to enhance the nobility of his features. It should not matter, but it did. Thorin had always been handsome - more handsome, in fact, than most dwarves could ever hope to be. Strong, symmetrical, perfectly proportioned features marked him as one of the golden sons of Durin - a branch of the family that was both blessed . . . and cursed. Few were the number who were graced with such physical beauty; fewer still, those who had been so blessed and survived to enjoy it.

Even fewer now.

No. Not fewer. Fewest, as in none. They were all gone now.

She turned to look at the biers arranged to flank her brother's. The line of Durin that was blessed with such beauty had been cursed for the last time. Such physical perfection would pass from the dwarrow world, never to return.

Her brother had been beautiful - famously, gloriously beautiful, a stunning specimen of masculine perfection, and much sought after by every dwarven female in all the realms. Many who mourned here today had striven to cultivate his interest and stir his affection. The fact that none had succeeded well enough to distract him from his determination to reclaim the mountain was at least one of the reasons for the intensity of the grief that centered on him. Thorin had been a source of speculation and inspiration, and he had lost nothing of his physical beauty in death. Dressed in the very finest raiment and wearing the crown handed down from his grandfather, he remained a vision worthy of adulation.

The crown would go with him to his tomb. Dain might have had other ideas, but even he - king though he would be - did not have the temerity to deny Dis any final requests. Thorin would be the last king of Durin's direct line; it was appropriate that the crown should be retired with him.

The master goldsmiths were already working on a new diadem, finely wrought and heavily jeweled, for the new king. The coronation would take place at midday tomorrow, when the sun was at its peak, as demanded by tradition.

Dis would be there, of course, occupying a place of high status, but she knew, as did everyone else who would attend, that, from that moment until the end of her life, she would occupy an honorary position. Nothing more. The power of the line of Durin was only history now.

She reached out to touch the golden clasp that bound the longest of Thorin's braids, and closed her eyes, allowing memory to swell, to take her back into treasured moments of the past.

No one had ever disputed his claim to the throne of Erebor. Even those who wondered whether or not Thrain had truly perished at the battle of Moria understood that Thorin was the one and only crown prince and sole heir. None would deny it, and, even if they'd tried, it wouldn't have mattered. It was obvious; it was there in his bearing, in the nobility of his stature, in the regal set of his shoulders, in the grandeur of his carriage, in the natural ease with which he assumed command. It was not, however, obvious in the clothes he wore or the circumstances of his life.

The dwarves of the Blue Mountains prospered under his leadership, but there was no great wealth, and life was never easy. Thorin led by example. In order to survive, it was vital for every member of the realm to work hard and contribute to the community, and none worked harder or contributed more than their young king. He was often away for months at a time, seeking work in the villages of men, and returning with the fruits of his labors to support his family and his people.

He was much loved and respected by those he led, and he wore his royal status with great poise. No one ever dared to challenge his dignity.

Dis opened her eyes to study the serene perfection of her brother's face before shifting to caress those of his companions in death.

Well, almost no one.

Because he worked so hard and drove himself so relentlessly, he seldom had the opportunity to enjoy a full night's sleep, so that once in a while - very rarely - he would nod off at an unexpected moment, when he was weary and worn out and granted a reprieve from the demands of his position. That never happened, of course, when he was in the presence of his adoring public, but it did happen, occasionally, in the bosom of his family, especially in the home of his sister and her sons, who did not see him as Thorin, king under the mountain, but simply as Thorin, brother and uncle.

Dis had always respected his position and accepted his authority, but nevertheless knew him best as the big brother who had taught her to ride a pony and abetted in the theft of cakes from the palace kitchen and engaged in the occasional food fight when their mother wasn't looking. He was her king - no denying that - but first and foremost, he was family, and this was an attitude that she passed along to her sons, with his heartfelt approval. The boys' casual acceptance of his presence in their lives and their ability to see beneath the veneer of royalty to the flesh-and-blood individual that lived there was the part of his life that he valued most highly - a circumstance that brought him joy in a life that had won him precious little of that emotion.

He was more relaxed in the presence of his nephews than with anyone else in his circle of intimacy, which was almost always a good thing, but - occasionally - led to unexpected consequences. Especially when the boys were fresh and full of energy, while their uncle was worn out from his difficult, endless tasks.

Sometimes, in a deliberate effort to shed his official persona, he would take them out for picnics or rambles in the woods, when the weather was nice and spring was upon the hills. He would sit beneath a towering oak, while they ran about, chasing butterflies and crickets and songbirds and squirrels. And sometimes, lulled by the music of their voices, he would nod off, comforted by the warmth of their happiness. Somehow, he knew he could relax in their presence, while being absolutely certain that - should any danger arise - he would know it immediately and spring to their defense.

The children were equally fearless when in his company.

Thus it was that, on occasion, Dis would go searching - or Balin or Dwalin perhaps - and stumble upon a precious moment, a memory they would hold dear to their hearts forever: Thorin, the mighty king under the mountain, dozing in dappled sunlight, while two little dwarflings worked wildflowers into his braids and wove coronets of leaves and vines into his hair.

Anyone who did not know the king well might have expected him to be enraged by his nephews' temerity, but those closest to him knew full well that nothing pleased him more than to waken to the lads' scapegrace shenanigans. Even when Ori - at Dis's urging - had managed to capture such a moment in a pastel sketch, Thorin had not been displeased, choosing to have the artwork framed and hung above the mantle in the cottage he shared with his sister and her sons.

Such memories, because they were few, were more precious than any other.

The boys had always held the key to his heart.

Her sons, who had also held the hearts of many around them.

The princes had been beyond beauty; they had been so perfectly stunning that many among the masses had believed them touched by some godly presence.

Fili. Her golden child, valiant and loyal and filled with the light of nobility. Born to be a king.

And Kili. Her baby. The baby that had been so bright, so filled with mischief and joy that he had been beloved of every dwarf that ever encountered him, except, of course, for the girls he'd teased so mercilessly and tormented with his boyish pranks. They'd hated him, until one day - far too suddenly for his mother's liking - they didn't. That had happened, of course, when he stepped across the threshold dividing childhood and dwarven adolescence, leaving everyone around him gasping for breath - and vying for his attention.

Fili had been the crown prince, and thus the most desirable bachelor in all the kingdoms, and every dwarven mother had been careful to direct her daughters' gazes toward his golden image - an urging that none of the daughters had resisted. He had never paid much attention to the privilege granted by his rank, and that had made him all the more desirable.

Fili had stolen the dreams of an entire generation of dwarrow maids.

Kili, on the other hand, had borne his princely status with more rueful humor than regal bearing. He'd often referred to himself - with a cheerful smile - as "the spare". Thus, he had been less targeted by ambitious mothers, and inspired fewer fantasies of royalty achieved. Kili had not stolen dreams; Kili had stolen hearts, frequently and without effort, not because he was a prince, but because he was Kili.

Dis paused for a moment at her brother's side, reaching out to touch his face - quickly, gently, carefully. It would not do to disturb his perfect symmetry.

She moved then to the bier on his right, to gaze down at her elder son. Crown Prince Fili, heir to the throne of Durin; once more, she allowed memory to surge.

It had stormed that night, stormed so violently that some dwarves - those of a superstitious persuasion - had muttered about dark omens and portents of doom. But Dis had been much too preoccupied to worry about such nonsense. Too preoccupied and too busy enduring a difficult birthing.

She had not had much time to dwell on the subject, but did recall, once or twice, that she had been assured that the second time should be easier.

It had been Gloin's wife, Pyr, who'd told her that, and, in one of those rare moments between contractions when she could summon up a coherent thought, she hoped she'd remember to tell her old friend just how bloody wrong she was.

Fili had come into the world with relative ease. There had been pain, of course. It was the price of life, after all. But it had been relatively brief, and she had endured without howling in agony, until he had emerged from her womb, chubby and rosy-cheeked and bald and perfect, just as expected. And blessed with the unmistakable symmetry of features that was the mark of beauty in the sons of Durin.

Like his uncle, Fili had been handsome from the moment of his birth, and made his grand entrance into the world with a minimum of fuss or bother.

To her surprise, the second time was different and not in a positive way; the second time she could not maintain complete silence, and she worried that the moans and occasional screams that she could not suppress would terrify those waiting outside her bedroom: her brother, Thorin; their cousins, Balin and Dwalin; and - most of all - her firstborn, Fili, who had tucked himself into a corner beside the hearth and refused to be banished to his bed until his mother's travail was ended.

There had been fear in those enormous blue eyes when Dis had tried to comfort him before allowing the midwife to lead her away to prepare her for the birthing bed, but there had been determination as well. Though he did not fully understand just how his life was going to change, the prince knew full well that it was going to happen.

Later, when Dis and Thorin looked back on that night and smiled at the memory, they would both acknowledge that none among them could have foreseen just how big that change would prove to be.

The younger prince was finally born after Dis endured a full day of hard labor, and he was singular, from the very beginning. Though dwarves in their adult lives were expected to sport an abundance of hair - head, face, and body - few were born with any hair at all, and those few were almost exclusively female

Kili was different from his very first moment of life, making his entrance into the world with a full head of dark curls that would defy discipline for as long as he lived. Different - and instantly adored, claiming hearts just as he claimed his first breath, for Kili was something else unexpected, almost unprecedented. Kili was not only perfect, not only blessed with the prettiness of infancy; Kili was beautiful, and would never know a single moment of his life when he would be anything less. The midwife and those who assisted her had seen it and acknowledged it with gentle smiles as the newborn was placed in his mother's arms.

Dis had seen it, and experienced two intense emotions: great joy - and great fear, knowing instinctively that the world might prove particularly dangerous for a dwarven child of royal blood who was also beautiful enough to inspire both admiration and envy.

Thorin had seen it when he was allowed into the room, and experienced the same conflicting emotions. He had tried to conceal his concern from his sister, biting down hard on his uncertainty, but Dis had noticed it all the same. She had known him entirely too well to be deceived.

And the other dwarves present had seen it and sensed the unease that lingered around the newborn dwarfling, even though they had been just as charmed and delighted with the baby as everyone else.

And most of all, Prince Fili - just five years old and barely beyond infancy - had seen it, although, if asked, he would have been unable to verbalize his feelings. He had not understood why the looks exchanged between his mother and his uncle contained elements of uncertainty, or why both of them seemed to touch the newborn prince with exaggerated gentleness, as if he were fragile and easily damaged.

He had sensed the emotional intensity, but had not known the reasons for it. But he had known one thing - one certain, absolute, unequivocal thing. He had a brother - an infant sibling who would forever be his baby brother, and he had known, from the first moment he looked down into eyes as warm and bright as glazed chestnuts, sparked with glints of dark topaz, that this would be the defining role of his life. Yes, he would be the crown prince of his uncle's kingdom, and he would grow to be a great warrior, and he would be a dutiful, loving son and nephew. But most of all, he would be Fili, brother of Kili.

He would always belong with his brother.

He had not spoken of it, but somehow, Dis and Thoren had both known it and accepted it for what it was: an ageless, immutable truth.

Dis looked down at her elder son's face and knew that they had been right; he had lived that role and died that role. He had given his life in the hope that his brother would live on, and she wanted to believe that it was a blessing he had not been forced to watch as that hope was extinguished.

Dwalin had given her a brief account of Fili's final moments, and she had understood immediately that he had gone to his death in full knowledge of the risk. He had instructed Kili to remain in the caverns below, ostensibly to search the lower levels, but Dis knew better. He had hoped to confront the pale Orc himself and destroy that abomination, thus sparing both his uncle and his baby brother the necessity of facing further danger.

His spirit had been strong to the very end; he had only been defeated by the sheer number of the enemy and their boundless savagery.

He had died as he'd lived: shielding the young dwarf who had claimed his heart from the moment of his birth, using his last breath to scream at his beloved brother, urging him to run, to be safe.

He was as beautiful in death as he had been in life, and Dis knew that no one else would dare to touch him, but there was nothing in the world strong enough to prevent her from leaning forward and touching her lips to his forehead, as her fingers stroked his cheek before moving to smoothe a silken lock of golden hair, and adjust the crown that he wore - the coronet of the heir to the throne of Durin.

For a moment, she simply stood there, looking down and trying to memorize every facet, every nuance of that beloved face. Then she took a small object from a pocket in the bodice of her gown, a tiny, polished stone, engraved with dwarven runes, and placed it in his hand, closing his fingers around it.

It was identical to the one she had given to her youngest child on the day the company of Thorin Oakenshield had left on their quest to reclaim the mountain.

A promise, broken now and beyond mending, but it symbolized her own pledge which would stand until the end of time.

She would never forget; she would never stop grieving.

She took a deep breath and forced herself to turn away, to accept the unavoidable truth; she would never again gaze down on the face of her firstborn. And now . . .

Now it was time for the last good-bye. It was time to bid farewell to her baby boy. Her Kili.

She had never loved one more than the other, but she had loved them differently.

In Fili, she had loved his nobility of spirit, his generosity, his soft heart, his sense of honor and duty. His goodness. All the things that had made him a worthy heir of Durin.

In Kili, she had loved his laughter, his tendency to leap first and look later, his sense of adventure, his willing heart, and his bottomless loyalty. Most of all, perhaps, she had loved the parts of him that were not part of his identity as a prince. Kili, the rascal, the scapegrace, the prankster.

Fili had filled her heart with joy and pride; Kili had filled it with laughter.

She wondered briefly if she would ever laugh again and found that she could not imagine it.

She paused beside the last of the three biers and took the hand of her youngest, her baby, and squeezed his fingers just enough to make sure that the rune stone was still clasped in his fist, just as it should be; then she cupped his cheeks with both hands, and wondered if she should make some effort to tame the riot of curls that framed his face. In the end, she left them as they were, as they had always been in life, as they should remain in death. Unlike his brother, he wore no crown, except for the one with which nature had blessed him.

It suited him far better than gold and precious gems.

She kissed his forehead, and made no effort to stem the swelling of tears that fell to caress his cheeks. She had been silent, stoic, tearless for too long. It was time to allow herself to weep, to christen her beautiful baby with the warmth of her tears.

"Sleep well, my darling boy," she whispered, as she moved one hand to lay atop his still heart, "and know that I am with you, always."

It was Dwalin who stepped forward then, to take her hand and lead her away.

Later, there would be a great feast, and there would be tales of the adventures shared by these noble three, and songs to commemorate their bravery and their place in the history of Durin's folk.

In time, they would become the stuff of legend and myth.

But not today, and not ever for the woman who finally allowed herself to be escorted to the privacy of her chambers, where she would sit in quiet solitude, surrounded by keepsakes that would give rise to beautiful memories filled with promise and laughter.

The memories would fade, of course, as all memories do in time, and there would finally be silence. Except for the beating of her heart. She would continue to hear that. But over time, that cadence would grow slower, one beat at a time, until one day, in a year or a decade or a century or two, it would grow still, with one final beat. Then - and only then - she would know true peace, and the end of her grief and pain.

At last.

The End