Stone of Erebor

by Primula

Chapter 14:  Something Fishy

They reassembled in Glóin’s rooms once again, except for Bombur had stated that he wasn’t inclined to move from the lower dining area he had parked himself in.  Closing the doors and gathering near the fireplace they waited eagerly in spite of some of the news already being guessed; that there was no discovery, or even any sign of the missing stone.  Those who waited still held out some hope there might have been at least a clue to make all the risk worthwhile.

“We have good news and bad news,” began Glóin. They murmured around him and he quieted them with a gesture.  “The good news first. No, it isn’t what we hoped, but remember, we knew our chances of finding it so lightly hidden were slight when we began.”

“Yet we needed to know it was not there,” interjected Dwalin to quell any dissent.

“Yes,” Glóin nodded. “We did. But you are leaping to the end of our tale; I think we should begin where we left our hobbit with Dori at the head of the last staircase. And we thank you once again, Bilbo, for your guidance.” They all nodded to the hobbit who was trying to hoist himself up onto a padded stool by the fire without tipping it. 

He settled himself carefully and smoothed his jacket. “Yes, do tell. I can’t say anything of interest happened to those of us up above, so if anyone has any adventuring to tell of, it’s you.”

“Perhaps,” Glóin replied, then shifted his stance, speaking out as a storyteller might. 

“I’m sure you remember that the stairs were dark, though that is little barrier to us. Only a single guard stood on duty at the time we arrived, even as Dím had said. When we heard his signal the guard was already in the far room where Dím had lured him.”

“Lured him?” asked Nori. “How?”

“What signal did he give?” asked Dori. “Had he told you of this, Dwalin?”

“There are three doors, great treasury doors in this part of the hall, just as he had described for me.  Dím was there before us and had opened the one farthest away from the staircase…” began Dwalin then subsided to allow Glóin to continue.

Glóin nodded. “The one we wanted was the one with the gems, and thankfully it was the first one we tried. I really do not know what we would have done if it hadn’t been.  There was a most terrible crash, the sound of many golden vessels and chains tumbling to the ground, beads also. I can tell you it startled us right enough! We would have been ready to give up and run if Dím hadn’t already told Dwalin that he would be signaling us by calling to the guard to pull him from his post.  It was his voice we heard after the crash.”

“He called to the guard to help him, that he was trapped under the treasures or whatever had fallen, and needed aid setting it aright.” Added Dwalin. “We had to hope it was planned and not a true mishap.”

“That was touch and go,” admitted Glóin. “We decided to chance it. By the time we reached the hall the guard was in the far room and we could hear him speaking with Dím, none too courteously either.  Dwalin was able to reach the door and release it. Thus we slipped into the gem treasury without being seen.”

“How could you possibly search all of it?” asked Bilbo, who pictured a huge room stacked with boxes of gems. “Wouldn’t it be too much? And wouldn’t they all be, well, locked up in their chests and such?”

“No, not at all,” said Dori and the others made sounds of agreement.

“For such a wealth as Dáin holds, the room is the treasure chest,” explained Dwalin. “Within his own treasury, who would want them locked into boxes? How else can anyone truly feel the gems, the gold, the smooth weight of them warming to your hand, to be surrounded in such beauty, all open for the touching….”

He trailed off, a half-rapturous look on his face.  Looking around, Bilbo found all of his companions had gone into the same half-dreamy state.  It reminded him of the looks he would see back home, right after the first big meal of early strawberries and cream had been served out, when even the corners were filled with the sweetest of fruits. Sheer bliss.

“Have you all got treasuries like that, then?” he asked curiously.

Immediately all the walls slammed into place and their looks went from blissful to reflexively furtive before they came to themselves again.  It confirmed his question without words: yes, they did. He did not pursue it.

“Our treasuries, a Dwarf’s own treasury, whether generous or small, is a very… private place,” tried Dori.

“It’s all right. Forget I asked! Do go on – so the gems were all out for the looking over.  Did you see anything promising at all? And how did you get back out?”

“The Arkenstone is unmistakable…” There were murmurs of agreement all around at this. “And we are all very familiar with gems. We each took a side of the room and worked our way towards the middle.  It was difficult going, for we needed silence and gems do not always whisper when they are moved.”

“We could hear the guard, too,” said Dwalin. “Talking to Dím. Dím was most insistent that everything that had fallen be put back exactly the way they had been, implying that the guard would have to answer for it if it weren’t.  And what a clatter he was making!”

“Cleverly done, it was,” agreed Glóin.  “About the time we were finishing up we heard him sending the guard up the stairs to fetch the inventory list for the room, claiming he had hurt his ankle in the fall and couldn’t get it himself.  We decided that this was our chance to get back out, whether it was intended to be or not…”

“It left Dím in charge of the guarding, if only for a handful of minutes,” clarified Dwalin.

“And so you were able to slip out?” asked Bofur.

Glóin waved his hand. “You see us standing here before you, don’t you?  We had to be quick. Dwalin waited until we were sure the guard’s footsteps were nearing the top of the steps, but just as we were about to open the door, it opened itself and there was Dím. He urged us out and around the corner before the guard’s return.  No sign of a limp on that ankle either.”  Glóin seemed to find this very clever.  “We ran of course, as quietly as we could.  I assume he went back to his post to moan about his poor ankle again.”

“And you didn’t… take anything, did you?” asked Bilbo.  His imagination had pulled him to that dim interior, a room of gems of every color and size, heaped and sparking all around. He couldn’t help but wonder if they might not take a small souvenir.

“Not the smallest bead!” said Dwalin seriously, and Glóin nodded firmly at his side. “You needn’t fear for the guard, Mr. Baggins. He is safe.”

“The guard?” said Bilbo, slightly confused. “I wasn’t even thinking of him. What does he have to do with it?”

Their eyebrows went up.  Bofur said “Dáin would know if anything were missing, as would any of us if a part of our treasure were gone.  And the guards that allowed such a thing to happen would be severely punished, dishonored.  Perhaps even lives could be forfeit if it were on their watch that something truly valuable went astray because of their negligence.”

“Oh, I say! I had no idea,” said Bilbo. “None at all. That seems rather harsh, doesn’t it?”

“What happens to the guards who fail in their duties in the Shire?” asked Nori.

Bilbo thought about this for a moment. “I have no idea. I can’t think of anything remotely like it!  Perhaps they might have a farmer’s dogs chase them if they stray into someone else’s field, or lose the feather from their cap.  It’s really quite different.”

“Yes,” Dwalin nodded. “Quite different.”

“So now it makes sense to me why he would leave his post to go get an inventory list,” continued Bilbo. “I wondered a bit at that one.  ”

“So we were successful, and yet we were unsuccessful,” concluded Glóin.

“Is that the bad news?” asked Bofur.

“No, I’m afraid there’s other bad news. Worse, to my mind,” said Dwalin.

They were interrupted by the jangling of a small silver bell.  Glóin went to the servants doors and unlocked them, allowing four servants to carry in an early luncheon.  The servants efficiently laid out the dishes and plates upon the table and withdrew, bowing.  The others gathered around the laden table as he carefully locked it behind them again.

“If we continue with these private meetings much more I’m afraid my servants will become used to it and not want to wait upon me properly,” he smiled as he joined them.  “What did you order brought in, Bifur?”

“Simple things,” said Bifur. “Bofur is paying for the fish, I merely took up the side-dishes.”

“And I paid for the pie,” volunteered Nori. “It’s only apple, but it’s spiced.”

“Well enough.  No standing on ceremony here, help yourselves,” said Glóin, taking up a plate.

Bilbo didn’t have to be nudged again. He eagerly reached for a plate and accepted a large helping of hot poached white fish from Bofur, who was lifting out the portions on a large silver fork.  After dubiously poking at a heap of the side-dish that appeared to be of a mushy pea mixture, he topped it off by reaching into the basket for a handful of rolls. The butter seemed to be missing but at least there was plenty of jam, a fruit ground up with sweet herbs he found interesting.  He was tasting a spoonful of it when all thoughts of the rest of his meal were swept away by... 

“Baked mushrooms!” he exulted. Bifur smiled as his small friend abandoned the jam to scoop up as many of the fragrant fungi as seemed polite.  Bilbo hoped the others wouldn’t be in the mood for them that day; he even managed to greedily calculate how many he didn’t have to share thanks to Bombur’s absence as he did so.

“So,” Bofur prompted Dwalin as he neatly sliced his portion of fish, “What is this bad news you have?”

Dwalin shook his head. “I can’t help but wonder if we’ve placed our trust in the wrong person.”

“What do you mean?” “Why?” came the voices from around the table.

He held up a hand. “No, no betrayal was made, at least not that we know of.  We just had a few misgivings.  Perhaps it is nothing, then again…”

“What sort of misgivings? About this Dím?” asked Bofur.

“Why would you doubt him? Did he give you reason to?” asked Bilbo at the same time.

“When he came to us, to tell us it was safe to go out, he asked if we had found the gem we were looking for.”

“And?” asked Nori, passing the rolls across the table.

Glóin nodded. “It was a problem because we had never told him what we were seeking.”

There was a general murmuring and frowning.

Bilbo looked at them and shrugged. “Well, the room you were going into was the one for gems, wasn’t it?  He would be able to guess from that, wouldn’t he?”

Dwalin did not appear comforted. “Yes, it was the one for gems, but then why did he clear the way for that particular room for us without ever being told it was the one we would be wanting?

“Then he must have guessed from your wanting to see Ûrd’s workroom,” Bilbo said. He went back to spreading jam. “After all, he was the jewelsmith.  You’re being too suspicious.”  He finished his roll and reached for another scoop of the mushy peas.  They were surprisingly good in spite of their appearance.

Glóin grumpily stabbed at his fish. “There’s no such thing as too careful. As my father always said, listen with one ear, be suspicious with the other.”

“Yes,” agreed Bofur. “The one who holds your secrets spends your treasure.”

“My father said a coin unguarded is a coin unsaved,” offered Nori.

“Caution is the father of a well-filled chest,” nodded Bifur.
 
“Beware of Elves with their tongue of silver, for soon they will have fingers of gold!” added Dwalin.

“But Dím isn’t an Elf,” said Bilbo.

“Of course he isn’t. What does that have to do with it?” replied Dwalin impatiently. “The point of it is we need to be careful, or suspicious if you prefer.  Suppose he knows the King has it and is deliberately trying to make us to give up our search?”

“After all,” said Glóin, “Why would he go to such lengths to help us in the first place?”

Bilbo shook his head. “Look, he said the King would be gone until afternoon and it appears that was true. If he wanted to get us into trouble wouldn’t that have been the perfect time to do it?  He didn’t!” He waved his fork in a general circle at all of them. “And didn’t all of you declare him officially trustworthy or something?”

“That was yesterday,” grumbled Dwalin. “It’s today that I’m worried about.”

“It’s only good for a day?” Bilbo threw up his hands with exasperation at their suspicious nature. “How do you live like this?”

“He did swear that he would not betray us to Dáin …” pointed out Dori uncomfortably. “Maybe we are being a bit harsh…”

“No. I do not think we can be harsh enough, if it is harshness to question and to test.” Said Dwalin.  “Which I do not think it is. We still do not have our answer, of why he would risk his own honor at the treasuries.”

“He was almost in awe of us,” said Dori more softly. “He regarded us as heroes of the realm, for defeating the dragon.  And what else could he do to help us? Would you expect him to go walking up to Dáin and just ask him where it is?  I think he served us very well.“

They all nodded at this, stroking their beards.

“I don’t think he would do anything to risk us,” Nori agreed. “If only all the younger ones had been taught as well…”  They murmured and nodded over their plates.

Bilbo nodded along with them. Dwarves are naturally a little self-centered and inclined to flattery but in this case he thought they were right.  Perhaps he was guilty of a bit of pride as well, he had to admit that to himself, but he had been a part of that heroic history, hadn’t he?  Never mind that he’d missed all the fighting during the battle…

Slightly mollified, they allowed their talk to turn from their unfounded worries to smaller things; the price of foodstuffs going up, the lack of good hired help for spring cleaning, which blend of metals were the strongest for axes versus hammers and picks and the merits of each.  Bilbo’s attention wandered back to his plate.

All too soon, the mushrooms were gone; at least there was still some of the pie left though someone had broken the crust off all around the edges. He took one of the less mangled pieces and nibbled at it. It had been a very satisfying luncheon. He wondered what the rest of the day would hold and what would be for dinner.

They all retired to Glóin’s sitting room once again as the servants returned to clear the meal, and were in the middle of a discussion on whether to go out to show Bilbo their new fortifications or whether to stay in and show him their newly improved glass-blower’s forge when a servant came to Glóin and bowed, a paper and an envelope in his hand.

Glóin took them and dismissed him, turning the envelope over in his hand.  He looked up at them suddenly with a look of shock that silenced all conversation.

“This is addressed to you, Dwalin… and it has Balin’s seal!”