Stone of Erebor

by Primula

Chapter 12: A Private Affair

I.

It was a bemused and worried Company that gathered in Glóin's rooms that evening, feeling crowded together after the expanse of Dwalin's family dining hall that they had become accustomed to. In truth the room was easily spacious enough for all of them and then some, but they felt crowded nonetheless.

Glóin had dismissed the serving staff once the food arrived and the carefully closed doors made them feel even more crowded in, or so they grumbled.  They really had no reason, Bilbo thought, as the room itself was comfortable and artistically balanced; the warm fire bringing the light out on various works of art and weaponry that gleamed, mounted on walls or displayed within their own carefully designed nooks.

Looking down, Bilbo noted the thick fur and woolen rugs of the main rooms had given way to a soft woven mat of some kind with fresh rushes spread over for easy cleanup in case of spills. It was just the right size to surround the table and its diners. This was an idea he had run into before but nearly forgotten about. He thought it terribly clever, seeing as the soiled "floor" could then simply be fed into the fire. He filed it away as an idea for future parties before he remembered that he probably wouldn't be hosting any more parties himself... well, if he ever got the chance to let Frodo know, it would be most handy to have something like this in Bag End....

They had constrained themselves from too much discussion until they were well away and to themselves, but the questions had flown quickly over their plates once they were. They finally heard what had happened to 'their hobbit' after he had gone off with Bifur and Bofur as his escorts earlier that day.

Bilbo obediently spoke, but it was hard to concentrate on it when he was still so hungry. The food was marvelous, especially the venison, and that odd dish with the liver, raisins and onions in it as well. He'd never been that fond of liver but this one was surprisingly good.  And the spiced fruit compote, mustn't forget that....  He spooned up the last bite of it on his plate and hoped there was more.

"So," Dwalin said, dabbling a bit of sauce from his otherwise immaculate beard, "You've told us how you ended up lost..."

"Bad bit of luck, that," interjected Bofur. "We never should have left you."

"He insisted," pointed out Bifur. "And if you recall it seemed a good idea at the time."

"Not so very good," grumbled Bofur. "I didn't think so...."

“That’s not what you said then…” replied his brother. “You…”

"That's neither here nor there now," cut in Bilbo. "I'll admit I was a bit overconfident, but I do think it might have turned out fine if I hadn't been all but chased to the treasuries by your King."  He emphasized this with bite out of his second helping of spring-onion pie and had to chase the generous gravy with a napkin.

"But still...." Bifur started again.

"And," continued Dwalin, waving his own napkin to silence them, "how you ended up of all places in our same King's dressing-room...."

"Like I said, we shouldn't have left him." Bofur repeated.

Bifur glowered at him. "Why are you looking at me, like it's my fault? You were there walking out the same as..."

"It didn't mean I was in agreement..."

Dwalin grimaced. "Excuse me!"

"Sorry," the two brothers chorused.

"As I was trying to say, Mr. Baggins, what I think we need to know more about is this youngster who seems to have been drawn in. What was his name again?"

"Dím," said Bilbo between mouthfuls. "And a capital fellow he was too. I was certain I was going to be thrown off one of your peaks or something."  He scraped up the last of his pie and shoveled it in, speaking around it. "I told him I was innocent, of course, and that my friends would be in grave trouble if Dáin were to know I'd been there, because he is still determined to think of me as a dishonest character - something that I continue to resent, by the way."  He took a drink of tea.

"Understandably so," nodded Dwalin. "And he believed you, which was a fortunate turn. But how much have you told him, this youth?"

"Not much. He does know that we are seeking something that has wrongly gone missing and that we need to ascertain that it is not among the possessions of the King."

"And you believe him trustworthy, not someone set upon us by Dáin?" asked Glóin.

"I do," said Bilbo. "He regards all of the Company as heroes, it seems - myself included for a change. After he had finished scaring the wits out of me - something he thoroughly apologized for, I might add, so no one need take offense - he was a fine help."  He reached for the fruitbread then passed it to Bombur as the two of them were the only ones still eating.

"What about the Men?" asked Nori, who had already let his belt out a notch and settled back to sip at a cup of warm wine. "Might they not tell some tale to the King?"

"Why should they?" asked Bilbo. "Mmm. Currants. Love currants," he added. Bombur nodded in agreement.

"Because they would know you hadn't been with them the whole time, and that you arrived slyly." said Nori. "Surely they would think it strange?"

"Why should they?" repeated Bilbo. "They were told to sit at the table and I would be with them presently.  I was.  After Dím showed me that side-passage so I could get in the room, they simply assumed wherever I had been, I was now there.  They didn’t care about anything else. I told them what they wanted to know and that I'll be stopping in to draw up a more proper map before I leave.”  He cleared his mouth with a sip of wine.  “They are not privy to Dáin's suspicions, and he wouldn't be opening his Kingdom to any strife with them."

"Strife?" asked Nori, with a lift of his brows.

"Yes, strife." smiled Bilbo, setting down his cup and picking his fork back up. "The Dale-men are also my friends, and they would most likely offer some protest if they believed I was being ill-treated by my hosts. Which I most certainly am not at the moment. Pass the last of that peppered venison, will you? The food is excellent. Do extend my compliments to the cook, whomever it may be."

"But this Dím," persisted Dwalin. "He is a jewel-dresser?"

"I assume so, if that's what you call the fellow who decorates the King for audiences and so on?"

They nodded. Dwalin stroked his beard thoughtfully. "If he can be trusted he would be a most valuable asset. As jewel-dresser, he would have access to all of Dáin's jewel-cases, and perhaps the gem-treasury.  He may even be our way of gaining entry to Ûrd's workroom."

"Or we could try just sending him there for news of any unusual gems that may have crossed those tables lately." said Glóin eagerly. "If he were willing. And if he’d tell us."

"But then he'd have to know what he was looking for," pointed out Dori. "And Bilbo said he didn't tell him. A very proper caution, by the way.  That is a weighty trust. Could we send someone with him?"

"Ûrd knows all of us. Who would he let in?"

"How about your son, Gimli?" suggested Bilbo. "He's also young. It wouldn't seem strange to the jeweler that a youth should come along with another youth, should it? At least in the Shire I know it was a rare thing to have only one youngster around. Where there's one, you'll soon find more."

"I think that's a very likely idea." said Dori, with a nod.

"Our younglings are perhaps not as gregarious as yours," said Dwalin more cautiously. "But they do forge loyalties to companions and family early on. It might not seem untoward, assuming Gimli is not recognized as of the lineage of the Company. Glóin?"

"I would like to meet this young jewel-dresser first, before I make my decision."

"Of course." Dwalin nodded. "We will speak to him when he arrives."

"Then if it seems well, he will go."

Bilbo looked at them quizzically. "Shouldn't we ask Gimli?"

"Glóin is his father." stated Dwalin flatly.

Bilbo had to bite his tongue to keep from speaking out of turn. He'd not forgotten about the patriarchal way Dwarves controlled those under their authority but that it extended to a son who was plainly more than old enough to care for himself had taken him off-guard for a moment.  He covered his awkward moment by slicing up his venison and stuffing it in his mouth.

"It is good to see your appetite was not marred by your misadventure." observed Bombur. "A fine sign of a good spirit, a good appetite."

"Well," said Bilbo, chewing. "All I'd had since breakfast was a winter apple and a sorry one at that. Thankfully, the Dale-men had cakes."  He swallowed and mopped the juices on the plate with a bit of bread.

---

When Dím arrived the meal was well over and they had all retired to what Bilbo assumed was the equivalent of a parlour.  The young dwarf entered almost furtively and seemed nervous, which was understandable considering he now had seven of the most influential living Dwarves all watching his steps in silence.

"Hullo!" greeted Bilbo, waving to him from where he sat on a hassock near the fire. "So good of you to come. These are my Companions, whom I assume you already know or I would introduce you.  Everyone, this is Dím, to whom I owe the preservation of my honor and dignity this day."

There were murmurs of greeting at this but little else, making Bilbo wonder at their reticence.

"We are grateful for your aid to our companion," said Dwalin formally. He stood and gave a brief bow. "But you understand we must see if you are worthy of our trust before we may speak with you further on this matter."

Dím bowed in return and then kept his gaze on his boots. "I understand."

Dwalin turned to the hobbit. "My apologies, Mr. Baggins, but this questioning must be done only among those of Dwarven lineage."

Bilbo just stared at them for a minute as he adjusted to this sudden shift in formality.  He got up from his seat. "Oh! Oh, of course. No trouble at all! I'll... er, I'll wait back in the dining room, perhaps? If that's far enough away? I shan't listen in."

There were nods of assent. With a last look at Dím, he turned to go. What had he gotten the young servant into?  

"Don't look so concerned," came Dori's voice to him softly. "He is in less danger than I think our leftovers are about to be." Bilbo managed a small smile of thanks for his friend, and went to the dining area, swinging the door shut behind him with its perfectly oiled click.

In spite of his promise, he did briefly place his ear to the door.  Only murmurs of dwarven rumbling could be heard.  He was glad the fire was still going, for who knew how long it would be. Poking at it, he flipped the half-burnt logs to brighten the flames and took a small plate of sweet fruitbread slices to nibble at while he watched them dance.


II.

A hand to his shoulder brought out of a muddled somnolence that he didn't realize he'd slipped into. "Mmhhf?"

"Mr. Baggins?"

"Are you awake?"

He opened an eye to see the fire, which had been so bright before was now fallen into a heap of glowing coals. How much time had passed? He pulled himself from the slump he had been in and tried to face them more alertly.  The empty plate clattered from his lap to the floor, bringing a chuckle from his awakeners.

"See? I told you the leftovers were in danger." Dori's beard wagged in his mirth.

"You may rejoin us now," said Bifur's voice behind Dori. "The testing is over."

"Testing?" said Bilbo, still somewhat in a fog.

"Our own judgment of his trustworthiness. Though he gave just as he was given, seeing as he needed to trust us as well."

“Surely you must have some way of seeing if someone is trustworthy among your own people?” asked Dori.

“I suppose…”  Bilbo had to think about it for a moment. “ If you listen to the gossip you’ll find out about someone soon enough.  There aren’t many secrets in the Shire.”

Bifur shook his head. “I’ll never understand Hobbits.”

Bilbo stood and brushed the crumbs from his vest and breeches, leaving the plate to lay where it was as he followed them back.

"Likewise, I must say, though I’m giving it a try. About Dwarves that is. Which means I'm brimming with questions about this," he said to their backs. "But I'm also guessing that unless I learn to grow a beard I shan't be knowing the answers anyway."

Dori smiled back at him. "Probably right."

"Very well. I'll try not to badger you about it. But do tell me if it turned out for the better or the worse?"

They entered the parlour room, where for some reason he noticed first of all that the sturdy couch Bombur was seated on was sagging in an alarming manner.  The heavy dwarf noted his attention and waved to him.  "Mr. Baggins! I do hope you left a little for me? I am fair famished with all this talk and bother. We could do with a little refreshment."

Bilbo smiled at him. "A little, yes. Shall I fetch you something?"

Bifur elbowed Bombur as he rose from the chair beside him. "No need, I'll get it. He shan't pay any attention to anything else until he's fed."

"I do so!" protested Bombur with good humor. "It simply helps me think a little clearer to not be wasting away.  Come, sir, have a seat."

"Oh, no thank you," said Bilbo. "I've been sitting so long I think my legs need the stretching."  In truth, he was afraid the couch would not bear up under the addition of his small weight. He leaned on the end of it instead as he looked around the room.

"Where is Dím?"

"He's gone with my son to see to the jeweler's workroom," said Glóin. "Gimli himself has never seen what we seek but knows what to look for."

"Yes," Bilbo nodded.  He remembered the stone's beauty and how even he had realized what it was as soon as he had laid eyes upon it.

"It is most unmistakable," put in Bifur, coming back in with a well-filled plate. "Even if it is.... that is, if it has...."

"Don't. Don't even think it," said Dwalin. "He wouldn't have dared ruin such perfection. I hold to that!"

"Well, let us hope this jewelsmith also holds by it," said Bifur darkly. He handed the plate to Bombur and sat back down. "And that he's truly gone from his rooms."

"The youth seemed certain of it," said Dwalin. "Though he knows not what we seek. I am still greatly amazed that he was willing."

"He honors you," said Bilbo. "All of you. He told me he thought of all of you as heroes of the realm..."

"He does," said Dwalin. "And this is a great aid to us.  He also seems to have much regard for you, master Hobbit.  More than our own King does, to our shame."

"He seems to have a good spirit," observed Bofur. “I wish more of our youth were so properly steeped in respect for their elders and our history.”

Dwalin looked into the parlour fire, then up at the gems glinting on the mantle above it. "Yes. Reminds me of Balin somewhat, when he was younger of course. He always believed the best of the old tales and heroes, always wanted to restore that lost glory of our elder days...."

"Believed? Why do you speak of him as if he were gone?" asked Bilbo.

Dwalin's face darkened for a moment, then smoothed again as he concealed his thoughts. "We must face the possibility that he is gone. It has been silent for far too long. I suppose it is easier to think of his ballad as being at an end than it is to wonder what might yet befall him."

The others nodded silently. Bilbo considered this. "They were seeking some sort of treasure, weren't they?  Like our quest for.... here?"

Glóin shook his head. "No, it was not like our old adventures. Some things of old are better left as they are, though the value be great enough to make any heart beat faster at the thought of it."

"Is that why you didn't go?" pressed Bilbo in curiosity. "With him, and with Óin? Not that I would wish you in any danger..."

Dori spoke up as if to turn the subject. "There are dangers everywhere, I suppose.  For instance, the reports say the spiders of Mirkwood are worse of late... No one travels through that part of the forest anymore.  Though the Beornings keep the lands on the other side safe enough, even they don't venture too deeply into that wood.  Who's to say what sort of treasures might not be lost in there as well?"

"No ffpiders," muttered Bombur with his mouth full. He swallowed. "Not for anything." There was a murmuring of agreement around the room at this sentiment. Even Bilbo shuddered slightly at the thought.

"I tried to talk him out of it," said Glóin tonelessly. "He was already one of the richest of us, but Balin filled his head with those tales..."

Nori cleared his throat. "They were successful in their venture, though. You have to admit they did find at least part of what they were seeking. Ori and the others. It wasn't all just tales."

"They were?" Bilbo was a bit surprised to hear this. He had the impression they had simply left and never been heard from again.

Dwalin looked into the fire again. "No, not just tales told around a fireside. Not just tales to frighten the young. But we already knew that. The lineage of our people is woven into that tale. Yes, they found some of what they sought but what else did they find, I wonder?  Why no word?"

"What did they seek?" dared Bilbo.

There was instant silence. It was not a surprise but he had hoped they might go on just a little longer, seeing as they had already said more in his presence than he thought they might.

"Sorry," he added with an apologetic shrug. "I assure you I have no plans whatsoever to go find whatever it is, wherever it is, nor am I going to tell anyone.  I was just curious. Balin was a good friend of mine and I can't help but wonder; but it's all right. You needn't say."

Glóin breathed a heavy sigh. "It was once said of you that you were worth your weight in gold, Mr. Baggins. Your understanding is a great courtesy. If more of us could see the value in mere curiosity instead of needing to hold every treasure in our own two hands there would be less grief amid our people.”

Bofur nodded. “The love and skill with which we shape all beautiful things is our strength, but it can also be our weakness when it overwhelms common sense."

"Not that common sense had much to do with our venture of fourteen against a dragon," Dwalin put in slightly defensively. "And we were successful. What deeds of great might would we have to sing about if everyone were content with mere curiosity?"

"There is a place for both," nodded Glóin. "Mayhap we may yet hear from them, someday."

"We'll make them a song," said Nori hopefully.

"If you do, I'll want to hear it," said Bilbo. "Oh, hullo! Back already? What did you find?"

The others all turned to see Gimli in the doorway, with Dím behind him.  

Glóin stood, and Gimli gave him a slight bow, though his face was unreadable.

"We searched everything we reasonably could, Father..."

"And...?"

"We did not find anything. Nothing that was as you described, that is."

"I don't know what you were looking for of course," said Dím a bit nervously from behind Gimli's shoulder. "But I promise you we looked everywhere. Nothing was touched, of course, but all was seen."

Glóin nodded in acceptance. "We thank you. You have given us a great service and we are deeply in your debt. Step aside, Gimli, let him in the room."

Dím stepped forward reluctantly. "I am honored to serve you and your families," he responded with a bow of formality. "Without you none of us would have our homes or fortunes. If there is any other way I can be of aid you have but to send for me, presuming my duties allow me to come."

"It wasn't there? Well, I'm glad I didn't risk my skin for that one after all," said Bilbo, "Seeing as it would have been for nothing, that is. No offense."

"I was so sure it would have been there," said Dori with disappointment. "Now I can't even think of where else to look."

"How about those treasuries I ran into?" asked Bilbo logically.

There was a collective intake of breath around the room and a combined reaction of shocked silence.  Dím looked as if he wanted to flee the room, held there only by courtesy.

"What?" asked Bilbo to their silence. "Oh come now. Are we going to get it back or aren't we? It's not like we're going to steal anything, we just need to see if it's there or not."

He got to his feet and went to the young dwarf. "Young Master Dím, I already know the way to them, or at least I'm pretty sure I can find it, thanks to the mishap that landed me in your company in the first place.  There's no need for you to be in any danger of rebuke from your King.  If you could just let us know when would be a good time to go there, and how to just pop them open for a moment to check, it would be enough.  I promise we won't touch a thing! We just need our own.... treasure.... back again so we may return it to the friend from whom it was stolen."

Dím looked around the room as if seeking a way of escape, then turned his eyes back to the hobbit standing so entreatingly before him. "Ach," he muttered, then straightened his shoulders. "Very well.  What am I to do?"

Dwalin spoke up. "There's no need for trouble and we don't wish to endanger you...."

"But Mr. Baggins does have a good idea here," said Bofur.  "If it is possible."

"Of course it's possible," said Bilbo. "Like I said, I already know the way. All we need is to borrow the key."

"There is no key," said Dím. "It.... er...."

Glóin nodded. "A hidden lock, of course. It would be expected."

Bilbo rolled his eyes at yet another "dwarves-only" secret coming up. "I know, I know. I'll leave the room.  But first can you tell us when it would be a good time to go? It's getting quite late for tonight, but if I have to I can manage."

Dím smiled down at him. "No need, Hobbit Baggins of the Companions...."

"Just Bilbo is fine, or Mr. Baggins if you prefer."

"Mr. Baggins then,” he smiled slightly, before continuing with the formality. “His Majesty the King is scheduled to make his rounds of the watch-towers tomorrow; he'll be leaving early.  Should nothing untoward occur, he shouldn't be back until the afternoon.  I myself have family duties that I must attend to that morning and all will know where I am."

"Perfect! Delightful!" said Bilbo. "I couldn't have asked for better. See?" he spoke over his shoulder to the rest of them. "It's easily done. We have plenty of time and this fine fellow will have an alibi from his family.”  He turned back to Dim. “So you’ll tell these fellows what they need to know?"

There was a long pause as Dim seemed to struggle with some indecision. He spoke, choosing his words carefully. "I…would need to be there to help you or you will never escape the notice of the guards. I will tell you when is the best time to go.  And I am willing to tell only one of them, no more. Who do you consider the most trustworthy among them, Mr. Baggins? I will bow to your judgment."

This was unexpected. They all drew themselves up. Bilbo's eyebrows raised as he turned to survey his Companions.  He couldn't help drawing it out just a little, but relented quickly. "Trustworthy?  All of them, Master Dím. I would trust any of them with my own life. In fact, I have.  But if what you are looking for is being close-mouthed I would choose.... Dwalin."

"What about me?" protested Bombur, not too seriously.

Dori chuckled. "Nay, Master Bombur, for a full plate of cakes you'd tell anyone anything they might like. He's chosen well, I think."

"Do you accept this, Dwalin?" asked Glóin.

Dwalin stood and ran his hand over his beard with thought. "It is also a weighty charge, but no weightier than that which we are asking of this young one. If you entrust this to me it shall go no farther, not even to my own Company.  Very well then.  Come with me now and we will retire to a more private place."

As Dwalin led Dím out of the room, Gimli turned to his father and begged to be excused. "I've fallen behind in my work, and must finish before the mastersmith's testing on the morrow. I bid you all a restful evening."

"Restful?" snorted Bifur after Gimli left. "Here we are plotting to break into the King's own treasuries and we're supposed to be restful?"

"We've had years of rest," replied his brother. "I must say I'm almost enjoying all this shaking up we've had in the last couple of days."

"Are you blaming all this on me?" asked Bilbo, who was warming himself by the fire.

"Oh no, of course not."  "Yes, absolutely!" said Bifur and Bofur at the same time.

"Well, I never meant to shake up anything at all when I arrived here. I don't know about you, but I intend to take his advice as soon as I know what's going on in the morning."

"I also," said Nori. "The older I get the sooner my bed looks good to me. Ah, but for the energy of your son, Glóin."

"Or of the rest of you," said Bombur, heaving himself to his feet. "Fill me in on your adventuring at breakfast. Will it be here or Dwalin's hall?"

"Here, if you'll take some of the cost again," said Glóin.

"Of course. I paid for the venison this evening, didn't I?" he smiled. "And the pie too.  If no one else does, I'll be here to protect our hobbit from wasting away. I shall see you at breakfast then. Good night and pleasant dreams." he lumbered out the door.  


By the time Bilbo was gratefully able to seek his own bed it was some time later, and even then he left some of the others to their converse around a low-burning fire.  Tomorrow would be yet another day with another attempt at setting a wrong to rights, and while that would have once been terribly exciting to him, now he found it made him just feel tired.

I hadn't counted on having quite so much adventure here... he sleepily thought. Or I would have rested up for it first. I wonder if old age is beginning to creep up on me at long last. We’ve never gotten along well, Old Age and I.  I confused it with all this traveling about and it doesn’t seem too good at catching up with me.  I bet if I’d stayed home it would have by now, and I would probably be old. 

He pulled the covers up more snugly under his chin.  Well, plenty of time for Aging later, should it creep up on me.. it’s probably wandering around Beorn’s place inquiring for me and I shan’t think it’ll get any information from those folk.  I just need some sleep… Gimli was not there, gone as he was to the forges again, but the bed was warm and soft and his weariness soon washed any remaining worries for the morning into somnolence.