Chapter 4 – A Family Council

I learned to know myself and look my loneliness in the face.

It doesn't frighten me anymore.

Balin and Thorin bid Imya to wait in the study until evening, when there would be fewer Dwarrow about. "We will need to discuss this with Lady Dís, and Fíli and Kíli as well," Balin had said. "And I'd rather not arouse attention about a sudden urgent meeting. Best we wait until the day has finished. If you're meant to be a friend of Lady Dís, your arrival shouldn't cause a sudden fuss for the whole family, late at night."

"Yes, quite," Imya had said, a little miffed.

The Dwarf King had the decency to look slightly chagrined, and said, "I do apologize, Lady Imya, that your deeds cannot be honored as deserved."

Imya merely nodded her head in acceptance.

The two left her then in the study, the tea still amenably warm next to her. A short while later, a Dwarf came and brought her a tray of meats, cheeses, bread, and piping hot stew. A bottle of wine was also delivered, and it was a fine vintage, yet Imya didn't touch it. She wanted her wits about her in this meeting, and in the secrecy of her mission.

Some time passed, and eventually a gentle knock sounded on the door. "Enter," Imya called, rather comfortable in the armchair, and secretly dismayed at the prospect of having to rise. It had been a long journey down from the North, and her muscles had been aching for days.

I must check on Ascha in the morning, she thought, worrying that the Dwarves would be out of their depth with her great stallion.

The door swung open, revealing Balin, who beckoned gently for her to follow him. As they walked through the dim corridors, passing only guards, he spoke in a low voice. "Thorin has explained to his family who you are, and why you have come. But of course they should like to meet you and discuss the situation, and how to address it."

Imya nodded, her gaze impassive.

They arrived at two massive metal doors, which swung open noiselessly when Balin pressed against a stone slab at the side. Imya refused to let on that she was impressed. They entered the chambers to find Thorin, Fíli, Kíli, and a Dwarven lady who Imya assumed was Dís, gathered in the room. The Dwarf King stood, arms crossed, scowling at his sister, who scowled back even more, if that was even possible. Kíli lounged on a sofa, seemingly at ease, but watching his Uncle with a keen eye. Fíli stood next to Thorin, his hands clasped behind his back, his expression unreadable.

All eyes turned to Imya as she and Balin entered. "Here we are, here we are." Balin said genially, hoping to diffuse the tension that had filled the room prior to their arrival. "Let's get this all sorted now, shall we? Then we can all relax a bit."

"If only it were going to be that easy, Balin." Dís said, glowering at Thorin.

Thorin glared back. "Don't start again." he said.

"Now, now, what's going on with you two?" said Balin.

Dís's voice was tense. "The two of you, with your inane secrecy, have created an infinitely more difficult situation than if you had simply been honest from the start!"

"You speak of it so easily, yet you were not here immediately following the Battle. My position was weakened, and there were those who would have sought any inroad to oppose me. Even now they circle, like vultures above their prey, but my legitimacy as King cannot called into question anymore. I could not have given them any more fodder against me." Thorin's stance had tightened.

"Yet now, we have a completely unknown noble Woman arriving with no warning, who is apparently supposed to be my friend, despite the fact that no one has ever heard of her, nor have I ever mentioned her, and who did not identify herself as such when she came to the gates of our Mountain. Furthermore, she is now supposed to secretly investigate an unknown, unconfirmed threat against you and my sons, all the while not attracting any questions about her true identity, which we all know nothing about, if I might add." Dís shook her head. "Yes, this seems like a wonderful plan. I tell you Thorin, you never cease to amaze."

She has a point. Aüle, this task seems beyond me now.

Kíli's lips quirked from his place on the sofa. Thorin said nothing.

"Oh, I don't think it's all so bad as that, Dís." Balin said. He motioned Imya with him as he walked further into the room. "It is indeed a delicate situation, but nothing we cannot manage. Even if Lady Imya's deeds had been made known, she could never have announced her reasons for return. If you want to catch a rat, you'd best surprise it."

"Quite right, Balin." Thorin said imperiously. "We will have the element of surprise, and that can only be to our advantage. What or whoever this threat it is, it will not know we are searching for it-"

"And how will we search for it then, if I must act the part of a noble lady?" Imya cut Thorin off, a hard edge to her voice. "If I shall be relegated to drinking tea and wearing fine dresses?"

"You will work with me." Fíli spoke for the first time, his voice piercing the rising tension. "As heir, the security of the Kingdom falls to me. And no one would question a Prince spending time with a visiting noble Lady."

"Very true, Fíli." Balin was nodding. "You will be the very picture of hospitality to our guest. And Dwalin and myself will take it upon ourselves to help provide Lady Imya with all the information and materials she needs."

All faces turned to Imya, expectant of her reaction. She nodded her head once, silent. A strange and secretive race, these Dwarves. So willing to lie and deceive their own people. However, she nodded her head, accepting the plan.

At this, Kíli decided it was time to speak up. "Lovely. Now, Lady Imya, who exactly are you?"

All again watched Imya, whose hairs were standing up on the back of her neck. "I am a Guardian of Aüle, Prince Kíli."

"Yes, we're aware of that. But who were you before that?"

"I was no one, Prince Kíli. Aüle made me who I am."

"He brought you into existence?" Fíli said, surprised.

"No, Prince Fíli. I was not Made by Aüle. But I might as well have been. I was born in the Desert, in the vast Sand Sea. I do not remember much of my life there, but it was never much to remember. It was cruel, and short. And eventually I made a Bargain to be Aüle's Servant, and here I stand today."

The Dwarf King looked at her intensely. "You bargained with Mahal?"

"Yes," Imya said. "Though I did not know His name then. But it was He who answered my call. And it was He who offered me another life." She untied her vambrace, revealing the Sigil. Its power suffused the room, the Durins closing their eyes at the weight of it. Balin, as before, remained unaffected, but his keen eyes noted the reactions of the Durins. "His Sigil marks me as His Servant, and it sealed our Bargain." She tied the laces again, hiding the Sigil once more.

"Strange," Balin mused. "Never heard of a Valar making Bargains with a Mortal."

"You doubt me?" Imya asked, her tone sharp.

"No, Lady, I do not doubt you. The power of the Sigil is plain as day to me. It's merely… curious. Yes, it's a curious thing to behold, a Valar making such a Bargain. I rather wonder why."

At this, Imya said nothing.

"And what does a Guardian of Mahal do?" It was Fíli who spoke, his gaze intense.

"I go where He sends me. I do His Will in these lands."

Kíli snorted. "Is it His Will that you be painfully vague at all times?"

Imya paused for a moment. "I do not question His Will. But, if you must know, Aüle has certain interests in the workings of this world. Through me, He can enact His Will."

Fíli asked, "And how do you know His Will?"

"I feel a pull. A calling, some feeling in my mind that will not release its grip. It is difficult for me to explain, but I can feel it in my heart that I must do something. And when I am truly uncertain, Aüle may speak to me."

"He speaks to you?" The Dwarf King seemed taken aback.

"Yes," Imya said, "through Earth and Stone. I hear His voice, and He guides me on my path. But it is rare that He speaks, and difficult to decipher when He does."

"So, Lady Imya, if you were to find the threat, would you be able to sense it?" Balin asked intently.

"I do not know, Master Balin. He has given me little guidance on my course so far. Perhaps He means for me to find the Threat myself. Perhaps He will tell me if I do. His Will is not for me to question, but I go where I am bid." She sensed they were disappointed. She sensed these Dwarves had hoped for more.

Dís broke the silence. "This is all very well and good. Now, Lady Imya will be shown around the Kingdom by my very hospitable eldest son and will hopefully find the Danger with her Valar-granted intuition, but let's not forget the question of her identity. A noble Woman, whom I apparently befriended recently, as she is not very old, without anyone witnessing it, or hearing of it?" She shook her head.

"You traveled recently to Dol Amroth, did you not?" Balin asked. "Five years ago is not too long, you can say you met her in the city. And no one would question a Southern Lady residing in Dol Amroth." He looked at Imya. "Have you ever been to Dol Amroth?"

She nodded her head. "Once, yes. But it was a long time ago, and I did not linger."

"Good enough," Dís said. "Very well. Lady Imya of Dol Amroth. It's nice to meet you, my old friend."

Imya smiled for the first time that day. "It's nice to meet you as well, Lady Dís, old friend."

"Join me for breakfast tomorrow, why don't you. I'll collect you from your room, and then I shall tell you all about the court here, and who you need to know. Then Fíli can give you a tour." She looked at Fíli. "Bright and early tomorrow morning," she said, a warning in her voice.

"Right then. It's late, we should all be off to bed! Lady Imya, you must be quite tired from your journey. Excuse the poor welcome you received here, but you had us all in a right state." Balin chattered a bit as he began to guide Imya from the room. "Of course, you must understand, we had to think of how it all looks, and well, outsiders always attract a lot of attention in Erebor."

As he mentioned it, the exhaustion seemed to sweep through Imya, who had fought against the call of sleep in her earlier wariness. She nodded along with what Balin was saying, hardly caring anymore. As she left the room, she caught Fíli's eye, who was regarding her with a strange look in his eye.

Balin lead her through seemingly endless corridors, the light of torches flickering against the dark stone. Yet it did not oppress the air, instead the air felt cool, and gentle, and the warm light created glowing patterns on the walls. They arrived at a set of doors, which swung open much like the other set had, smoothly and silently. Balin stopped and turned towards Imya. "Your rooms, my Lady. Forgive us, but a maid was not available so late at night. One will be assigned to you and assist you in the morning."

"Oh no, I won't be needing one—" Imya tried to protest, but Balin cut her off.

"Noble Ladies all have a maid, Lady Imya." he said pointedly.

Will I be so ruled by the fashions of court in this cursed Kingdom?

"Of course, I understand." Imya's voice was tight. She nodded once and entered the room. Before closing the heavy doors, she said, "Goodnight Master Balin."

"Goodnight Lady Imya."

Imya shut the door, and turned to face the most opulent room she had ever stayed in. Precious stones glittered from the walls, and the furniture was made of sumptuous fabrics. A small seating area with an ornate table was at the center of the room. Off to the side, a small door lead to what she assumed was the bedroom. She walked over and gasped at the heavy fabrics and furs covering the enormous bed. The wardrobe itself was the size of most beds she had stayed in.

The bathroom was also was filled with opulent stones covering the walls, and a deep tub was carved into the very floor. It was already filled with water, and fragrant soaps were awaiting her on the side. An enormous mirror stood in the corner, which she immediately threw a towel over. She did not wish to set eyes upon her travel-weary self.

Her plan had been initially to fall straight into bed, but the beauty of the fabrics forbade her from doing so. Muscles aching, she stripped, and lowered herself into the bath. The warm water immediately relaxed her muscles, and she sighed slightly. The perfumed soaps washed all the dirt from her skin, leaving her cleaner than she had been in a very long time. Regretfully, she pulled herself from the bath, dried herself. Once in the bed, Imya was so warm and comfortable that she drifted off almost immediately, a rare feat for her.

The morning dawned sooner than she would have liked, and Imya would have slept for hours still, had it not been for the hesitant knock on the door to the bedroom.

"My Lady?"

Startled, Imya sat up. "Who is that?" she called, immediately suspicious.

"Aneth, my Lady. Your maid."

"Oh, yes. Come in," Imya was uncertain, never having had a maid tend to her before.

The door opened, and in walked a blonde Dwarf, her high cheekbones and tawny hair marking her out as a beauty. She wore a plain dress and was carrying a stack of what seemed to be folded gowns. She curtsied; the movement slightly awkward under the weight of her burden. "Good morning my Lady. Master Balin said you'd be needing these."

Imya's heart sank at the prospect of the heavy gowns. Aüle, are you punishing me for some misdeed?

Aneth handed her a robe, and Imya went to the bathroom to freshen up while Aneth tidied the room. When she came out, Aneth motioned her over, and helped her into the first gown from the pile. It was light blue, of velvet fabric, with lines of small pearls lining the bodice, the neckline, and the sleeves. It was beautiful, and Imya hated it. But she held her tongue. It would not do to give the game away on the very first morning of playing the noble Lady.

Aneth, bless her, did not mention the myriad scars covering the back of Imya's shoulders. The thin shift covered the multitude, but those that were revealed were still grisly, and lesser maid might have gasped. But Aneth, though young, was rightly proud of her discretion and her tact.

Eventually Imya was deemed properly dressed, and Aneth stepped back, admiring her handywork. "Beautiful, my Lady," she said.

"Thank you." It was nearly a whisper.

A knock sounded at the door. "That will be Lady Dís," said Imya, and she moved towards the door. She opened it, to reveal the sister of the King, hair masterfully braided, wearing a sumptuous gown herself.

"Come, come, time for breakfast," Dís said, the note of impatience in her voice discernible.

The Lady Dís obviously relished in breakfast, as Imya would find. As they sat down, Dís immediately piled her plate high with pastries, eggs, bacon, rolls, and many other delicacies from the table. She tucked in before Imya had even taken a sip of her tea.

"Where are those blasted boys?" Dís grumbled, momentarily looking up from her breakfast. As if sensing their mother's impending wrath, the two Princes hurried into the room, both looking slightly tousled. Imya suppressed a smile. Neither the Lion nor the Hunter were fond of early mornings, apparently.

"Good morning Mother, good morning Lady Imya," Fíli said, ever proper.

Kíli gave an irreverent grin. "A most wonderful good morning to you, dear Mother. And I hope our honored guest has enjoyed her first night in this beautiful Kingdom."

Fíli and Dís rolled their eyes simultaneously. "Thank you, Kíli," Dís said, exasperated.

The Princes took their seats the breakfast table, both filling their plates in a similar fashion to their mother and beginning to eat as if they had not eaten in days.

"Now then, Lady Imya. We have much to discuss." Dís's gaze was direct, and Imya felt herself sitting up slightly straighter. "As you are my friend, you must spend part of your days at least with me. You can join me this afternoon for tea with my Ladies. I shall introduce you to them all, but do try especially to make friends with Lady Thamri. She is a good friend of mine, and you would be wise to have her on your side."

Imya nodded her understanding and sipped her tea. Her stomach roiled at the thought. Aüle save me, she thought. It had been long indeed since Imya had made a friend, and longer still that she had kept one.

"Try and avoid Lady Fori, however. I suffer her only because she has influence with the wider court, but she is a gossip-mongerer if there ever was one. Take care not to reveal anything she can use against you. She won't like you, you're not a Dwarf, and she'll try and start something, to rile you up. Don't let her get under your skin, however. Be vague and noncommittal. Lady Thamri should be on your side, though. She can't stand Lady Fori for a moment." As Dís went on, Imya felt herself preparing for battle. Only this was a battle she was wholly untrained for. Her swords and armor were of no use, her horse could not carry her away from the claws of the court Ladies. Imya had never been one for charm and flattery, or for veiled words that sounded one way and were meant another. She had not needed such tactics in a long time.

"Lady Hareth and Lady Astra are cousins, and thick as thieves. They might mock you, but it's in good spirit. They like to joke amongst themselves about the rest of the world. They are harmless though, but take care to be friendly. They don't like to be ignored, it offends them. Besides them, there is Lady Fima and Lady Neas, both of them friendly. Lady Fima adores horses, you'd do well to speak to her about yours. Lady Neas will try to get you married off as soon as she can – she loves matchmaking more than she loves her own husband, and she has no problem with a mixing of the races, unlike most Dwarves. Just smile and nod, and try and distract her with something else before she gets too far with you. That's about it." Dís smiled. "Worry not Imya. These are positively beastly Ladies; you'll adore them."

Imya felt sick.

Notes

The quote is from The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende.