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The Saddest Are These

Chapter 1: Chapter 1

by cynical21

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, 'It might have been'.”

- John Greenleaf Whittier, Maud Muller - Pamphlet

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They had numbered just thirteen; there were only ten now.

Or eleven, if you counted Bilbo Baggins, which seemed only appropriate. It was right and proper that he should stand with them here, at the end of all things.

It was time.

The rumbling, baritone blast of the great horn of Dale made it impossible to deny or ignore the bald fact.

It was time.

There was no longer any way to refuse to face the ultimate truth; there were no more tomorrows, no more dawns to signal new days, no more eager smiles to herald adventures eagerly awaited and long anticipated.

The sons of Durin had been silenced - forever.

It was time for the remaining members of the company of Thorin Oakenshield to perform their final duty, to serve as the honor guard for those they had lost.

They stood at attention now, all decked in their finest armor and cloaks; all standing tall, as befitting those charged with such a somber task. Except for the Hobbit, of course, who could not stand taller than he was. He was not dignified or grandly dressed, but he was a part of the company, and there were none who dared to question the propriety of his presence among the group, especially when he was the only one among them who made no attempt to stem the tears that flowed freely from his eyes. His grief was a palpable presence in the great room.

Three marble biers stood in the center of the great audience chamber, polished and massive and appropriately ornate, gilded and carved and etched with the runes that marked the heritage of the three bodies laid out upon them, bodies clothed in suitable finery, in hand-worked leather and embroidered linen and silk.

As the elders of the group, Balin, Dwalin, and Oin stood together in the center of the chamber, each designated to symbolize the guardian of the soul of one of the three being honored.

It would fall to Balin to say the words, as he was the eldest of them all and the one who had known the fallen heroes longest. Known one of them longest, at least. For the other two, almost everyone within the great hall had known the young princes all their lives, had greeted their births with song and joy in celebration of the continuation of the line of Durin.

The direct line was ended now.

Dain would be king tomorrow, by family connection. He was the nearest surviving relative, a cousin by marriage, but he was not a direct descendent of the blood of kings.

There were those who mourned the passage of the royal succession; there were others who thought that perhaps it was a good thing. The line of Durin had suffered enough.

The silence was thick and heavy as Balin stepped forward - as heavy as stone, but not nearly so heavy as the hearts of those who watched him and waited, hoping for words of comfort and wisdom.

The gathered survivors of the dwarves of Erebor crowded the galleries and great halls and sought solace for what had been lost, all knowing that there was no true solace to be had. What had been taken from them was irreplaceable.

Balin had tried to find the right words to give them what they needed, but had been forced to concede, at last, that no such words existed.

He paused beside the first of the biers and was unable to resist an impulse to reach out and smooth a lock of dark hair that had curled beneath a stubbled chin - a chin that bore no full beard and now, never would.

He lifted his eyes briefly and spotted a figure in the gallery: Gandalf the Gray, who was just a dark silhouette against the brightness that poured through the arched openings to the terraces. The sun was brilliant, almost blinding, and Balin was seized by a sudden urge to beg the wizard to do something to remedy that. It should not be bright and beautiful in the meadows beyond the mountain; it should be storming, cyclonic; nature should be raging against the cruelty of destiny.

He looked back down then, and studied the face before him, and was stricken with a pain almost beyond bearing as memory surged to consume him.

It had been Dwalin, with Balin at his heels, who had discovered Kili's body. None had seen him fall, except for the elf maid who was cradling him against her when they found him. Dwalin had stepped forward and knelt to gather up the bloody young prince and carry him away to lay him out beside the body of his brother.

Kili and Fili had not died together, and none among the dwarves could quite wrap their minds around that fundamental truth. It felt like sacrilege, somehow, that they had fallen separately. It had seemed important, therefore - even vital - to bring them back together as quickly as possible. They had faced life side by side; all knew they must face death the same way.

Dwalin was the only surviving witness to what had happened to Fili. He had watched helplessly as the crown prince had been butchered by Azog the Defiler. He had been reticent since the battle's end, loathe to speak of what he had seen, but he had finally, with great reluctance, told Balin about Kili's reaction when Fili had fallen dead at his feet. His description had been terse and coarsely spoken, but there had been no disguising the intensity of the pain in his voice, and Balin was sure that his brother would never forget how the younger prince had dropped to his knees and gathered his brother in his arms and screamed out his grief, before laying Fili down with aching gentleness and placing a final kiss on his forehead. Only then had the youngest son of Durin surged to his feet and raced up the mountain, sword in hand as he howled in his fury and his thirst to avenge his brother.

Only fate and the vicious Orc, Bolg, had prevented him from completing his quest.

As Dwalin had carried Kili's body away, the elf maid had remained seated there, obviously in pain, her eyes huge and empty as the prince's blood dripped from her hands.

Balin, after studying her face as she watched, had come to believe what others might have deemed inconceivable.

Tauriel of the Woodland Realm had loved Kili, prince of Durin, even though she had known, just as he must have, that there would have been no place for them to be together in Middle Earth, just as there was no place for her now, among the mourners. Her grief would remain forever her own, private, unspoken, and more intense for being suffered in
silence.

Thranduil was still here, of course, with his retinue of guards; it was appropriate for one king to pay homage to another. But the other elves, including the king's son, were gone. They would never return to Erebor.

Balin sighed and noted that Oin was standing stiffly, heavily braced on his staff, and it did not require great insight to realize that the healer was exhausted and barely able to function.

It had fallen to him, after all, to tend to the bodies of the king and his nephews. He had insisted on doing everything himself, allowing only Bofur to lend a hand.

Together, they had removed mangled armor and bloody clothing; together, they had stitched torn skin and straightened twisted limbs. Together, they had bathed lifeless bodies and cleansed beautiful, still faces, and washed and combed thick locks and beards.

Balin looked down, and tried to focus only on what was closest to him - on the hand-carved bow that was placed across the strong, young shoulder, and the finely wrought quiver, filled with newly-crafted arrows fletched with raven feathers, that was tucked beneath the well-muscled arm that would never again draw that bow.

Kili. The baby prince. Balin drew a deep breath, trying to swallow the pain that swelled in him as he remembered how fiercely the youth had resented that nickname and how intensely he'd fought to put it aside and become as fine and skilled a warrior as any ever trained by Master Dwalin.

He'd also been referred to - once or twice - as the pretty prince, but anyone who dared to call him that had learned quickly and violently that doing so was a mistake one dared not repeat.

Balin and Thorin had watched Kili's progress together, had hidden their concern that he was too eager and reckless and willing to risk himself in pursuit of his goals and then expressed their pride when he'd proved himself more capable than they'd ever dared to dream he'd become. They'd watched him struggle when he was still too young and not yet strong enough to master the weapons, and they'd basked in the glow of his happiness when he'd found ways to overcome the obstacles. They'd smiled when he'd laughed with joy when he'd managed to surpass the expectations of everyone around him, and when his brother would tease him and rumple his hair. And they'd pretended not to notice when he'd grow weary at the end of the day and fold himself up against his brother's warmth, becoming a child again.

Memory shifted then, and Balin found his perspective changing, as he recalled how a slender dwarven woman with golden tresses had struggled to drag a comb through a thick, dark mane that curled tight in spite of all her efforts to straighten it, and how carefully she'd worked to insert the silver clasp into that uncontrollable mass, to hold stubborn, rampant locks off her baby son's face.

The silver clasp that he still wore, that would go with him into the darkness.

Kili, the baby prince.

Lying in state now, beside Fili, the big brother.

Pausing only to lay his hand, for the last time, on the forehead of the youngest son of Durin, Balin moved on, to study the visage of the crown prince. Once more, he was careful to limit his vision to what was near at hand.

He could get through this, he told himself. He could. If he was careful to avoid the gray/blue eyes that looked down upon him from the figure standing beside the king's empty throne.

Dis. Daughter of Thrain. Daughter of Thror. Daughter of Dema. Sister of Thorin, and mother of Fili and Kili.

The official ceremony had been delayed until she had arrived, and now she stood in silence, beside the throne that her brother should have occupied, the throne which should have been reserved for her eldest son, upon her brother's death.

Now another would reign in their stead, and she would watch as all that was left of her family was consigned to the burial vaults deep beneath the mountain.

They had promised to come back to her - all of them - and those promises had been broken, despite the carved rune stone still tucked tight within the closed fingers of her youngest son's hand.

Balin could not look at her or deal with her. He had left that task to Dwalin, and he knew himself a coward because of it. One day, when he was stronger, he would ask his brother to tell him of her words and actions. But not today.

Memory stirred again.

It had been Gloin who'd recovered Fili's sword after the battle.

It had been broken and twisted as he'd fought for his life, and it had required the best skills of the dwarven armorers to restore it, but it rested now on his chest, polished and pristine and befitting the splendor of the prince who bore it.

Balin thought that Fili looked as if he might be sleeping. Of the three, he seemed the most natural, the most himself, and Balin had a sudden ridiculous urge to lean forward and whisper a parting greeting in his ear. "Good night, sweet prince," perhaps. He wasn't sure where that urge came from, but it somehow felt right.

On second thought, though, perhaps the blond prince did not look quite as normal as in that first impression. His golden locks and his princely beard were, perhaps, just that much too perfect, too symmetrical, arranged with a bit too much artifice. Bofur had spent an inordinate amount of time in preparing his braids and weaving in the royal gem stones that proclaimed Fili as the crown prince of Erebor. Balin almost surrendered to an impulse to adjust a braid or tug on a thick tress, so that the young prince would appear more relaxed, more casual.

Neither of the brothers had been big fans of formality or ritual.

Fili, of the lion's heart. That had been the title bestowed upon him by his uncle, on the occasion when he had saved his younger brother's life by confronting a wild bear in the forest with only a wooden spear as a weapon. He had been barely a teen-ager at the time, and Kili had been just nine years old, and their escape had been due more to luck than skill.

Neither had ever spoken of just how terrified they'd been, except maybe when they were alone together, but everyone had noted from that day forward that the one seldom ventured very far from the other. It would set the pattern for a lifetime. Even when Fili had gotten old enough to develop an interest in dwarven maids, he had been careful to stay away from any who resented the perpetual presence of "the little pest".

Fili and Kili were a package deal, and no one ever dared question it.

Fili, of course, as the heir to the throne had been held to a higher standard than his little brother, had been forced to endure lessons in diplomacy and statesmanship that Kili had been spared, but it never seemed to make any difference in how they treated each other.

Fili would be king; Kili would be his golden knight. No one would ever have dared to challenge the notion; no one except destiny, of course, which seemed to care nothing at all about what should have been.

When Kili had taken up archery, at Dwalin's suggestion, other dwarves had laughed at him, disparaging the skill as "elvish". It had been Fili - wearing his best Crown Prince demeanor - who had silenced them, displaying the flair for command that should have - would have - made him a great king. When the younger prince had proved to be a master of the craft, Fili had taken great delight in making those old critics eat their words.

Fili, of the lion's heart, and Kili, his golden knight, would now face the darkness together. Just as they should.

Repeating his gesture of farewell, Balin smoothed one stray lock of golden hair back from the lovely face of Erebor's crown prince before moving to the last of the three biers, this one slightly higher, slightly more ornate, slightly grander.

Thorin Oakenshield, beautiful in death as in life, still commanding, still majestic. Still the king under the mountain.

There had been no official coronation, of course, as only the members of the quest had been present when he claimed his crown. Yet none here would attempt to deny that he had earned the title.

He had earned it by reclaiming the mountain. He had earned it by leading the armies to victory.

But, most of all, he had earned it by devoting himself to his people, and that had happened long before setting out on his final quest. It had happened when he labored in the forges of men in order to provide sustenance for those who depended upon him. It had happened when he stood against tyranny and defended those too weak to defend themselves. It had happened when he stepped in for the father lost in the confusion of battle.

It had even happened when he took it upon himself to take on the role of father to two little princes who had never known any nuance of the splendor of the Lonely Mountain.

Thorin had never really known peace - not since the coming of Smaug and the loss of the mountain. Perhaps he would now. He was still regal, still looked the part he had played so well in life, with his hair and beard fanned out around him, with the elven sword, Orcrist, clasped in his hand. Every inch a king - the king who had reclaimed Erebor.

Balin looked down on the noble face of the man to whom he had devoted his life and was once more caught up in memory.

It had been early spring, and the land had been vibrant with renewed life when Thorin had returned from his latest foray into the world of men - one of many he made every year to sell the products of his forge in order to support his family and his people. He had arrived late in the day, but not as he usually arrived - on foot. On this occasion, he'd come by pony, astride a sturdy pinto with a thick, snowy mane, a surprise gift for the two boys who were the center of his life. As usual upon his returns, he'd been greeted by a swarm of village children, excited voices shrill and breathless with joy over his arrival.

Tiny boys and girls had run beside him, all clamoring for his attention, but, although he'd smiled and laughed in appreciation of their greetings and distributed tiny toys and trinkets among them, his eyes had been fixed on the tiny dwelling on the hill, and he had not stopped until he drew near - near enough to be assaulted by two tiny figures that had come flying through its doorway and raced to his side, their faces wreathed in the only smiles that ever truly touched his heart. They had loved the pony, but not nearly as much as they'd loved their Uncle Thorin.

Fili and Kili.

He had lived for them; he had died for them.

Balin felt his breath catch in his throat, as that bright memory was pushed aside by a more recent recollection.

The king had stood before the company, still trembling from the remnants of the madness that had claimed him. He had reached out and laid his hands on the shoulders of his beloved nephews, but his eyes had moved to Dwalin, and then to Balin.

"Everything I did, I did for them," he'd said, so softly he was only just audible.

Then he'd straightened and stepped back, before speaking again. "I have no right to ask it, but will you follow me - one last time?"

There had, of course, never been any doubt about the answer.

And now here he lay. His body would fall to dust, but his name would live in legend.

Balin looked around him, at the faces of those who mourned, those who loved, those who would never forget, and realized that there were no words to be said.

The quest was done. The sons of Durin belonged now to the Ages.


The End