Stone of Erebor

by Primula

Chapter 10: Stray Conversation

Through the gap in the doorway's heavy drapery Bilbo could just see the sparkling back of Dáin, King Under the Mountain, addressing the modest gathering of Men who had come up from the Valley. After the usual assortment of formalities the sparkle moved to the side, presumably to be seated on the throne. The young attendant, Dím, took up his place near the doorway, effectively filling most of the small view with part of his back and a stout leg.

The unfortunate hobbit lay very still, hunkered under the cloth robe that mostly covered him. He waited to see what the other servants would do, hoping that they would leave now that their task of arraying their King was completed. They didn't. To his dismay one tiptoed past him over to a padded stone bench on the side and seated himself, apparently to await Dáin's return to the dressing room after his address. The other smoothly and silently straightened up the disarray that had been left by the King's rapid change of dress then joined his companion where they sat side by side as if made of stone themselves.

Beyond the curtain, Bilbo could hear the men of the Dale speaking to the King. It was to his great surprise and consternation he heard his own name being mentioned.

"...Bilbo Baggins?" Dáin was saying.

"The hobbit, your majesty," explained one of the men. He sounded vaguely familiar in voice. One of those he had been escorted by, perhaps? He couldn't recall the man's name. "He was bound for your fair and most magnificent kingdom only two days past and his escort reported he had arrived safely and without mishap. Surely he is still here? He's very small..."

"I know who you speak of," replied Dáin, sounding slightly irritated. "You need not explain. Yes, he arrived and was delivered into the safekeeping of his former companions, which places him under my care and hospitality. Why do you seek him?"

"Forgive us for any undue concern or interruption our inquiry might bring, your majesty. Prince Brand sent us to ask some information of this hobbit..."

"And what information might that be," the gruff monarch cut in, "that he could not tell you of it before his arrival here? I do not brook secrets being kept between those within my kingdom and those beside it."

"No secrets are implied or intended, your majesty, we assure you. As always, we are open to sharing all we might learn and hold nothing back. Prince Brand has asked that we request information of this Mr. Baggins on how we might set up possible trade routes to his country, the Shire, and through it. Naturally, it is our hope that our esteemed friends and allies the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain may also benefit by this trade."

"My own people already traverse that land, I am told. The Dwarves of the Blue Mountains are our kin; theirs are the lands that lie beyond it, and many are our people there. Why have you not inquired of this alliance with us first?"

"Ah... no offense intended of course, your majesty, but you must realize that your own people are not... forthcoming to those of non-Dwarven lineage when it comes to such details as - er - maps, directions, trade or... routes."

Dáin seemed to find this amusing. "No, I suppose to you they would not be. Dwarves seek the well-being of Dwarves first, else we should all have been robbed half-blind long before now. But you and your people have certainly benefited from living alongside the banks of our river of gold, and now you would like to go fishing yourselves, eh?"

There was a murmur from the men, but no cohesive answer among them and an uncomfortable pause.

"What do you hope to market or trade with this new route? To what benefit?" asked Dáin abruptly.

"Fish," answered their spokesman promptly. "As you have plainly guessed by your clever reference (may your beard grow ever longer). Our finest lake fish, white and clean, dried on the sun-filled slopes of this very mountain. The same fine fish that often honors your own table, provided by the skilled hands of our fishermen. We had hoped Mr. Baggins could aid us not only in the best route, but in perhaps teaching us of what the Hobbit-folk lack that we might be able to fill, and in what way they might best receive our tally of dried fish on a market day if they have such a custom."

"I see. Go on."

"If your kin in the Blue Mountains would also benefit by this fine meat, we would be pleased to trade with them as well, of course. It was Mr. Baggins own generous orders to our artisans for small toys and crackers to amuse his guests in the Shire that made us aware of the possible extent of this market."

"...Toys and...crackers?" Dáin sounded dubious.

The speaker puffed up a little. "Yes! A great lot of them. Our toy-makers are the best... among Men that is," he finished as he remembered where he was.

"Toys." Dáin observed dryly. "I see. Well, perhaps he can aid you, perhaps not. Either way we will soon find out." He clapped his hands sharply and issued orders to someone Bilbo could not see to fetch the hobbit from where he was sequestered with his companions. "I shall have one of my officials attending this meeting with Mr. Baggins and yourselves, of course."

"Of course," murmured the ambassadorial men. "We are glad to share in all things with our most august neighbors."

"Crackers...?" said one of the servants seated nearest Bilbo.

The other shrugged and motioned him to be quiet.

Well, thought Bilbo, These Men are certainly used to living alongside Dwarves. They've got the flattery down pat. Fish, for the Shire? Not a bad thought, but their timing is atrocious. Why couldn't they have remembered before I left them? And what am I going to do? Now they're looking for me!

"Very well." came Dáin's voice on the other side of the curtain. "You and your company may be seated near the fire for your comfort, and generous refreshment will be sent for. Scribe! You will await the hobbit's arrival. Be seated, be seated, good Men. You will not find our hospitality lacking. I myself will retire, as I have other matters of greater importance to attend to."

"The audience of Dáin, King Under the Mountain is concluded!" announced the young dwarf and the curtain pulled back. Dáin swept into the dressing room, and the thick drapery dropped back into place.

"Fools. They take us for fools," muttered Dáin. "Send for wine, but middle stock is sufficient. They won't know the difference. One platter of cakes, but no additions unless absolutely necessary."

One of the waiting servants bowed and went out the side door, passing by Bilbo so closely he could have reached out and touched him.

"You," pointed Dáin as his rich cloak was being lifted from his shoulders by Dím's quick hands. "You watch for that hobbit. He better not keep them waiting, those Men have monstrous appetites." The other servant bowed and slipped out the curtained entry into the main room.

Dáin stood still, holding his arms out from his side as Dím quickly circled him, removing a variety of adornments and laying them in their waiting cases. The numerous rubies were unclamped from his beard and a more modest assortment of gems put in their place.

"What's taking him so long?" he grumbled. Dím did not reply.

Bilbo lay under the concealment of the cloth and tried to pretend he was invisible, though his head was feeling faint with the nearness of the King. What would his companions say? How could they cover for his not being among them? The minutes slowly slid by in fat drops and the whole situation began to seem unreal. When the last of the ceremonial jewels were finally laid aside, Dím helped the King back into the vest and cloak he had been wearing before.

The servant that had taken the wine to the envoys returned and bowed. "The Men have been served, your Majesty."

"And that hobbit?" asked Dáin.

"He has not arrived yet, your greatness. He was not with his Companions, and they are seeking him now."

"Not with his Companions?" growled Dáin. "What do you mean, not with his Companions?"

The servant bowed again and tugged his beard in apology. "Only that he was not present and they seemed taken by surprise to have him inquired for, Sire. They assured us they would find him quickly and sent their sincere apologies for the delay."

"They did, did they?" said Dáin darkly. "And what was he doing away from them in the first place, I wonder, unattended? Summon the Company, with or without their burglar. I want them here immediately!" The servant began to turn but Dáin held up a staying hand. "Wait. It would not be seemly for these Men to view any Dwarf thus summoned in dishonor. First you are to go to the Dwalin's hall, but do not be openly seen. I want to know what they are speaking to one another when they think they are alone. I want to know where that hobbit really is and if in truth they've lost him. If necessary, use a server. Food bearers are not noticeable; tongues wag freely within their hearing."

"As you wish it will be done, Sire." he bowed.

"Once you have the listeners in place you are to serve them with an immediate summons to the Annex of the Hall."

"Yes, Sire." murmured the servant and slipped back out the door.

"I'm going to make them pay for every drop those Men are drinking," muttered Dáin, as if speaking to himself. "Now I'll have to extend them a full meal, I don't doubt it. Delays...! And now a wandering thief in my halls!" He tugged his cloak sharply. "I will await them in the Annex. I want a full report as soon as Mr. Baggins is found. I do not need further attendance now."

"Yes, your Jewelness." bowed Dím, stepping back as Dáin swept out the back hall and rustled away.

There was a long pause. Left alone, the young dwarf laid the remaining jewels in their cases and carefully stacked them in a chest. When will he leave? fretted Bilbo. He imagined vague dire consequences for his company if he could not return to their sides soon, all the more fearsome for their being undefined. The robe that covered him seemed to be suffocating him.

Dím muttered to himself. "Spying on the Company of Thorin Oakenshield. It just isn't right. I've heard some tales of this hobbit myself..." The dwarf closed one last latch and locked it, carefully fastening the key to a leather packet he carried. He closed the pouch and tucked it into the front of his vest. Bilbo watched him through a gap in the cloth and slowly hitched his feet under him, ready to make a dash for the door as soon as the servant left.

Dím walked past, headed for the door. Bilbo gathered a breath.

The young Dwarf suddenly turned, and with lightning quickness pounced on Bilbo, turning him and sitting on him to wrestle the squeaking, struggling mass of cloth to the floor. One of his hands tore back the concealing cloth to reveal greying curls, and the frightened face of the King's missing 'burglar.'