Stone of Erebor

by Primula

Chapter 13: Hidden Ways

Breakfast was earlier than Bilbo would have liked, not that the food was unwelcome but rather that his head was reluctant to leave its pillow.  At least it was colorful: golden-browned carrot pancakes greeted him, topped with a cheerfully red berry sauce. Baked mushrooms well-tucked into a fat cheese omelette followed (to his delight) with a generous side of new potatoes tossed in butter. Though there was once again the dubious looking platter of salted fish at least it was more than offset by the rest. All was washed down with steaming mugs of dark bitter-spicy tea with lots of sweetening. 

He ate heartily and sighed with appreciation when some warm apple-and-clove tarts were brought in towards the end, compliments of Bombur; they were similar to the ones he had loved to bake at home, the kind that can be topped with cream right from the tea-creamer and eaten with a spoon, crust-bowl and all. 

"A day without pie is a like a day without sunshine," he quoted happily. "Or so my parents always said."

"I don't know about the sunshine," said Bombur, reaching for another tart. "but mine always said 'pie is golden,' which I suppose means much of the same thing."

"It means you eat too much pie," said Bofur, who had already settled into a chair by the fire to smoke a morning pipe.

"Fie! There's no such thing. Too much pie, hah," he guffawed. "Pass the cream, there's a good fellow. Thank you, Mister Baggins."

Bilbo tucked into his portion with a good spirit. He was pleased at the overall plan they had; and for once, his part seemed simple enough. He was to lead them to the treasuries, and then leave them to go about their investigation while he appeared in a some very visible place to remove himself from all suspicion if anything went awry.  With the King off at the watch towers, Dím had assured them that he could arrange for their entrance to the rooms to be unwitnessed. 

Where exactly Bilbo was to be seen wandering was open to thought, so he ruminated on it while he ate.

"I haven't had a good look at the sun since I arrived. It would be nice if I could do a bit of it by the main doors. There were those sunny porches I noticed you'd built along the front."

"I don't know if that would be a good idea," said Dwalin, who was puffing away next to Bofur. "It might make them think you’re just wanting to give secrets to the Men who stay in the guest quarters there."

"What? You're jesting - no, I see you're not."  He couldn't help but think, not for the first time, how frustrating it would be to live as such a suspicious people. He decided not to say so and set aside his now empty plate to sip at his tea.

"How about the halls, the ones we brought you in along; they have windows. Where you admired the tree sculptures?" suggested Bifur.  "There was some sunlight there and it is often busy so you would be seen by many."

Bilbo nodded over the rim of his mug. "All right. Tree-halls it is. I'll make a show of being a great admirer of them seeing as they have windows - after a fashion." 

Unlike his own comforting windows back home which gave a clear view into his garden, Dwarven windows were invariably high windows, crafted and slanted so that the sun would land exactly where they wanted it. They used the light as they crafted anything else, to bring out the beauty hidden in the stone and metal, not to have a view. Being not only high but narrow they were also individually too thin for anyone to ever squeeze through, a bow to the pervasive paranoia about being robbed.

He did not expect a view; but as long as they let in a little sunlight he would be content.

Dwalin stood up and took a breath. "Now, who will be going? Fetch us some twigs from the kindling there, Nori.  I must be included, as I am the one who can open the way. We agreed on no more than three others and I can see no way for us to decide it without some impartial drawing of lots."

Heads bobbed in agreement. Nori collected some twigs and broke them to the similar lengths with three of them longer.  These were given to Bombur to hold as he had already declared he had no intention of walking that far, and they all stood and gathered around him to pull their lot from his generous fist.

There were murmurs and slight disappointment but no arguments as Glóin, Dori and finally Bifur measured their twigs longer than the rest.

Knowing they were very possibly being watched, by their earlier agreement the remainder, Bofur, Nori and Bombur, would make themselves visible in places they often frequented lest there be an impression that all of them had suddenly vanished at once.

---

As they walked through the halls they all found themselves once again worrying that it could be Dáin that had the missing stone, which would make for a sticky political situation.  How should they manage such a thing? Should they confront him? Or just quietly take it away, relying on his own inability to proclaim it missing as he wasn't supposed to have it in the first place?

"And even if he doesn't have it, I fear he will not hesitate to lay claim to it if he should come across it before we do," murmured Glóin.  They all nodded somberly.

"Worse, just yesterday we found out that Dáin has ordered a special set of gems, apparently to be worn for midsummer," said Bifur. "To have gems that match for an entire set to be made up..."

"They would all have to be from the same vein," said Dori.

"Yes, or...from a larger gem, cut up..." Bifur finished darkly.

"I still say he would never do such a thing. He wouldn't order it and no jeweler of any honor would do it!" stated Dwalin.

"Still..."

Glóin held up a hand and looked around as they came to a familiar hall. "Hush. Mister Baggins, are you sure you can remember the way?"

"Yes, yes. I was coming from over there and it was a little opening, a narrow hall that you almost don't even see until you're right upon it.  That's why I thought it might make a good hiding place - which it obviously wasn't.  See, it's right there."

"Ah, yes. Interesting. Now see how this hall was formed from an old vein that was completely mined out?  Very clever work." Glóin ran his hand over the smooth wall with appreciation, pausing at a slight beveled lintel that angled up to where a torch bracket stood. "It looks like older tooling too.  What skills our forefathers had!"

They all filed into the narrow slot with Dwalin and Bilbo leading the way, moving along one at a time and rounding the bends. "It's a good thing Bombur didn't come along on this little walk," chuckled Dori. "Can you imagine?"

"It would have taken a mining team a week of work just to dig him back out," Glóin agreed with a quiet laugh. "He'd have been stuck like a cork in a bottle."

"Hush," admonished Bilbo this time, who was feeling rather nervous about all of this, even without the dwarvish racket echoing around him.

"Watch your step," said Dwalin more quietly from the front of the line. "We're following the old vein downwards."  They slowly made their way down several steps in the darkness until they came to the next level. 

"Which way?" he whispered.

"Left," said Bilbo. "I went left...those two doors were locked, but just down past them there's another hall.  Take it. It should go sort of downhill."

They shuffled along and turned down the angled hallway, following the slope downward once again.  The hall came to a split and they paused.

"Erm...just a moment," said Bilbo. This part was rather a blur in his memory, he had been running... running... "Right." he said.  "I remember now, I nearly knocked myself silly on that....er..."

"Torch bracket."

"Is that what it is? Why is it dribbling so far down the wall like that?"

Dori smiled.” That’s the tail. It's shaped like a dragon. Surely you recognize that?"

He glanced back at it critically as they moved down the hall. "A fanciful one, I must say. Doesn't look like him as all."

They went right, downward once again, slightly up and then down yet another hallway to the top of another set of steps where Bilbo stopped them.

"Now,” he whispered. “If I'm remembering correctly these are the steps that will bring you out near the treasury doors. It looks dark from here, but it sort of bends around. There's probably light at the bottom and anyone who's there will be able to see you coming out, so go carefully."

"It's supposed to be clear until midday, at least as far as Dáin himself goes. And if Dím carries out his promise we should be able to cross to it safely as soon as we hear his signal,” added Dwalin.

“He said it there was only one guard at this time of day. What if there’s more?” worried Glóin. “We don’t want to have trouble…”

"Are you sure we can trust him?" asked Dori. It was not the first time they had asked one another this question. He appeared calm but his voice trembled slightly.

"We're a bit past that point, aren't we?" asked Bilbo rhetorically. "There are several doors - are you sure you know which one to go to?"

Dwalin nodded, seriously. "I am the one who knows this."

"How can we know he didn't put it in one of the other rooms?" worried Bifur belatedly.

"You always did tend to just leave things where they fell, didn't you?" said Glóin with mild amusement. " Dáin isn't like you. He is very meticulous, he would never mix one kind of treasure with another."

Bilbo, who was Baggins enough that he had always believed in things having their proper places (whether he managed to practice it or not) nodded approvingly.  "So each of those rooms only holds a certain kind, silver in one, gold in another...? Amazing.  But admirably organized and it certainly beats toting it around in a wheel-barrow. Well! I leave you here then. Best of luck!"

"Best of luck indeed, that you knew the way," said Dwalin. “And that you fell in with this lad.”

“Aye, he was a good find,” nodded Glóin.

"You always were our Lucky Number, weren't you?" said Bifur, giving him a small bow. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me too soon; my luck has been hard-pressed of late. It’s really Dím’s luck we’re all leaning on now.  Go on, and do be careful."

Dwalin seemed unusually nervous, but seeing as it had been decided that if anything went awry he was the one who would shoulder the blame, Bilbo could certainly understand it. The old Dwarf looked down at him with concern. "You can find your way back out?" he asked.

"Seeing as I may simply retrace my steps this time, yes.  Isn't anyone coming with me?"

"With you?" All eyes were on the stairwell that led to the treasury doors.

"As an escort. If I'm to be above suspicion, I'll need one of you with me in the halls. We should have thought of that sooner."

There was a long pause. They all looked down at their beards.

"I'll go," Dori finally volunteered with obvious reluctance.

"Thank you," said Bilbo sincerely. "I can only imagine what it must be like for you to miss out on seeing what's inside those doors - a bit like having a lovely strawberry cake set before you and being told you can't have any, I would guess."

----

In the long gold-dappled hall far above the darkness of the treasuries Bilbo and Bofur wandered slowly.  Bofur, who had accepted Bilbo as his charge from Dori, had chosen this as their loitering-place because it kept the hobbit in plain sight of any number of minor officials both of Men and Dwarves. It provided a useful alibi. 

Bilbo was cheered by the mild sunlight the high windows offered; His own hopes were bolstered that all would be well. The sunlight touched the metal leaves of the carven trees upon the far wall and brought a faint patterned shimmer all around. It must have been a sight to see in the high summer, he thought, and wondered where he would be then.  He hadn’t really decided how long he would stay. 

I suppose some of it depends on whether I may leave in good honor or if I’m thrown out...

He dutifully admired the artwork, the carvings, tapestries and anything else of note that he saw. Beside him Bofur offered occasional explanatory comments.  At the far end of the hall he found a sort of interior courtyard. A low wall partially surrounded a collection of tables had been arranged inside it plus a slightly raised area for the officials of the Mountain. It was here that they worked to resolve disputes, collect minor fees, seal documents and otherwise deal with the endless mundane details of running a kingdom; anything that did not require the King’s personal attention. 

It was ideal in that it provided many witnesses for them.  Besides, Bilbo was quick to note, there were also tables with refreshments! True, it was only light fare, as anyone might put out for visitors who will not be staying long: simple brown breads, butter, a (rather inadequate) pot of jam, dried fruit and a large pot of tea that steamed over a weak brazier.  He helped himself generously while looking over the various workers in the courtyard.

The King may have been out but it was easy to see his eyes and ears were still present.  Bilbo recognized one fairly easily;  a servant that had been in the dressing room with him.  This one shuffled some thick parchment and every now and then made a pretense of marking it, but no matter which part of the room Bilbo wandered to the servant was shortly on the same side ineffectively shadowing him.  He also noted the jewel-maker, Ûrd, passing close by but was willing to consider that one a coincidence.

Seeing as it was probably assumed that he was there to eat the refreshments and spy, Bilbo would at least confirm eating the refreshments… Not that any of the information going past would have been worth spying on anyway.  The petitions being discussed regarded mundane matters, fees or small squabbles of no interest to any but the squabblers themselves.

“Who pays for the food here during these petitions or judgments and such?” asked Bilbo of his escort. “It doesn’t seem like Dáin to offer free food for all comers.”

Bofur raised his brows and smiled slightly. “You understand him well for a Hobbit. You guess right; the refreshments are paid for by taxes upon the goods of the Men.”

“Then I suppose he won’t mind getting a report that I’ve eaten some, seeing as he thinks I’m in cahoots with the Men anyway.”

“Does he?” asked Bofur with surprise. “Odd.”

“Is it? It seems he suspects just about everyone, doesn’t he?”

“No more than any other Dwarf might in the same situation,” said Bofur reasonably. “You are, after all, not a Dwarf.”

“So I've noticed,” said Bilbo.  “Though I fail to see how that is supposed to explain it all. Oh - Books!”

“What?”

“Over there, a shelf of books. May I look at them you think?”

“I don’t see why not…”  said Bofur as he followed along behind.

Bilbo reached up, his hand straying over the modest selection of Dwarven books that were neatly lined up along the marble shelf.  At first thought he expected them to all be about mining, or forging or perhaps how to conceal a treasure.  Seeing the runic symbols more closely it appeared that none of them were - which on second thought didn’t surprise him. It would not be like Dwarves to openly record such things, after all….  So, what did they write about?

All of them were bound with a metal-bonded leather, yet seemed lighter in the hand than one would expect.  The leaves were neatly trimmed and tooled with shining decorations of gold and silver-leaf. Kingly books to warm a bibliophile’s heart.

The first one he tried simply because it was one of the smallest and he felt a natural affinity for smaller things.  He had to peer at it for a long moment before realizing it was something he had heard before, sung by the Dwarves when they were walking as a walking song.  It was, in essence, a lengthy warning verse about the deceitfulness of Elves.  Not really something he cared to pass the time with.

He carefully reshelved it and tried again. Skipping a fat tome containing a monotonous listing of historical officials and rulers he went to the next one, also somewhat slim. The leafy decorations on it reminded him of home.  It turned out to be harvest and winter storage instructions for root vegetables with a small number of illustrative drawings and, intriguingly, a couple of recipe suggestions.  He puzzled over these eagerly. Hobbits have an abiding fondness for cookbooks, and Bilbo was no exception.  He was surprised that this part of the book was so brief and hoped there were more like it.

He tried a somewhat thick one from the middle but it turned out to be thick from unnaturally thick pages, stiff and smooth, rather than from the length of a tale.  There were drawings and the text was fairly easy to decipher. It listed methods for cleaning and sharpening common tools and, he realized belatedly, appeared to be a child’s primer.  Among his people it would have been the cookbook that was done up this way, a contrast that made him smile to himself.

“Are you enjoying them, then?” asked Bofur who had wandered back down the length of the hall.  “I never did see the use of reading much but I know some do.  Dwalin has a whole chest of books he’s been safekeeping for Balin.  Maybe he would let you take a look at them if you asked.”

“Oh yes! I would like that… there’s so much work in them, they are works of art themselves, you know.”

Bofur tipped his head and looked over Bilbo’s shoulder at the tool primer.  “I hadn’t ever thought of them that way, “ he said. “Hm.” He walked the length of the shelves, running a critical eye over the bindings. “We could do with a better balance of color. Maybe some in copper.”

“I was referring rather to their insides,” smiled Bilbo.

Thinking on color he put the primer back and chose one bedecked in a bright red cover that seemed cheerful to him. Unfortunately, his mood was jarred as it had more illustrations than text, and turned out to be a manual for treating injuries with an emphasis on concussions and burns. 

Disappointed, he tried once more. He chose the one with the fanciest tooling on its cover and opened it with a furrowed brow to scan over the lettering.  The furrows soon smoothed and a look of pleased interest replaced them. This book recorded the history and meanings of the arrangement of beard-hair, including the historical importance of beard-dressing for rank insignia that Bilbo found fascinating.  It was entirely new to him. He knew they went to great pains to braid, fasten, loop or otherwise bedeck their facial hair at times, but he had always considered it purely decorative, like a hobbit-lass putting ribbons in her hair for a dance.  He sat down on a bench and studied it.  Bofur, his brief interest in the books exhausted, wandered off to get a drink and returned after a time with two large mugs of hot tea, one of which he handed to Bilbo.

Bilbo scrutinized Bofur’s beard, then pointed down at the page he had been studying. “Look here. This says that this small bit of a braid you have right there means you’ve done something brave or notable for your family line. Am I right?”

Bofur’s eyebrows raised. “You never fail to astonish me, Mr. Baggins.”

“So, what did you do?”

“Why, I helped regain the Mountain of course. Same as you.  You will note the same braid on all of our Company.”

“Except me, of course.”

Bofur chuckled. “Well, what do you hobbits do to show such honors?”

“Nothing,” said Bilbo, shaking his head. “Nothing at all. We aren’t much for medals and crowns and such, though I guess we do sometimes give honorary names that describe a person or something they did. Like Bandobras Took, who was called The Bullroarer, a warrior hobbit if you can believe it. Or even Gerontius, who is called the Old Took because he’s even older than I am.”

“We do this also. Thorin’s name Oakenshield was given for his great prowess in battle. What name do your people give to you?”

Bilbo laughed wryly. “Mad Baggins,” he said. “And indeed, sometimes I wonder if I was mad to ever get caught up with all of this.”

“Mad Baggins?” asked Bofur, as if feeling out the sound of it on his tongue. “It does not have an entirely ill sound to it, though I would think something like Brave Baggins would be more apt.”

“Thank you,” said Bilbo. “Brave Bofur.”

---

Time passed slowly.  Though neither of them mentioned it aloud, they were both worrying that something might have gone wrong with that morning’s foray. They had run out of books and both finished their tea before they began to worry in earnest, and thus were most grateful when Dori finally entered the hall. 

He came and quietly asked them if they would like to join him for some early luncheon, with cakes. An innocent sounding invitation that was their signal that the others were safely back. Leaving their empty mugs on the nearest table, they quickly went to get the news.