Stone of Erebor

by Primula

Chapter 15: Old Secrets

Glóin read the note that had come with the envelope as the others gathered near. “It was sent from our young Dim.  He says here that he found it under a chest while moving the effects of his aged uncle to new quarters. As he says, it appears to concern us and the seal is unbroken so he sent it on straight away.”

“It was an honorable thing to do, sending it like that,” Bifur said.

“Indeed it was,” said Dwalin, scanning over the small note as Glóin handed it to him.

“Why wouldn’t he?” asked Bilbo.

“It’s unmarked and from one of the wealthiest among us,” Bifur patiently explained. “It’s quite old and had never been missed – he could have easily kept it and possibly gained a secret for a treasure from it. We would have never known the difference.”

“It shows his honesty,” clarified Dori.

“Oh, of course…” said Bilbo, who would’ve never thought of such a thing. A treasure map, then?

Glóin examined the wax that held the fold of yellowed parchment closed. “It is most certainly Balin’s seal,” he said almost fearfully. “I am afraid to hope…”

“What does it say?”  “Open it…”  “How can it be possible…?” came the voices around him.  He did not reply but took a breath and handed it to Dwalin as if he thought it might suddenly sprout wings and fly away.  Dwalin’s hands were trembling so that he found the wax seal hard to break.

The seal cracked. Holding his breath, he carefully opened it.

“It’s dated from a season after they left…” said Dwalin. His voice trailed off as he frowned over the lettering.  There was pause. “Forgive me, my eyes are not what they once were and this is a hand I do not recognize.”  He moved to the side of the room where Glóin was already lighting one of the delicate silver lamps for him.

“How could it have lain hidden for so very long…?” wondered Bofur softly, voicing what many of them were thinking.

“Who is it addressed to?” asked Bilbo.

“It does not say..” Dwalin said absently. He tilted the paper into the bright pool of lamplight and squinted at it.

“That’s odd,” Bilbo began…

“No, not really,” said Nori thoughtfully.

Glóin agreed. “It must have been originally enclosed within a larger missive.”

“A post-script, then…?”

Nori nodded. “Of sorts. By custom it means the writer has more to say but only for certain eyes to see. The rest of the letter may have been for all.  In this case, we do not know whom it was intended for, but as Dwalin is Balin’s closest relation….”

“It goes to him,” finished Bilbo, nodding his understanding.

There was a long silence. The fire shifted and hissed. Dori’s boots creaked next to Bilbo as he shifted his weight.

Dwalin frowned and his lips moved with concentration. He made a small sound of dismay. “The writing is not a hand I know, but it says it is written by another for Balin’s hand was injured…” His eyes went to the end of the letter. “The scribe’s mark may be that of Ori …strange that he does not name him if it is…”

“Ori?” Nori and Dori both breathed eagerly.  “What…”

“No, perhaps not. It is unclear. Let me see…” muttered Dwalin. He returned to the body of the letter and his frown deepened. “This is an older code…”

“Code?” said Bilbo.

They ignored him. “Did Balin sign it?” asked Glóin. “Is it his hand?”

“No signature, just his seal. But it is impressed with ash…”

“Oh no…” breathed Dori; all waiting seemed gravely concerned.

“Ash?” asked Bilbo, feeling that he was missing something of obvious importance.

“A sign of sorrow…” said Dori softly.

“Something of worth that is no more… or a regret…” murmured Nori.

“Ah. Oh.” He bit his tongue on further questions and waited impatiently.  A code? Well, that would explain why it was taking so long… He itched to see it himself.  He was good with codes…

Dwalin moaned. In the silence of the room it seemed unbearably sad. “No….”  He seemed to bow down, as if the words he read were a sudden weight.  He shook his head gravely. “No. Glóin, you need to read this also… for it concerns your kin as well as mine.”

He gave it over to Glóin’s now hesitant hand. “It concerns us all…” his voice sounded oddly broken.

Glóin puzzled out the words slowly as Dwalin stood by him,  pulling at his own beard with a rising distress. 

‘This cannot be!” cried Glóin.  “He would not take the stone!”

“And yet it must be, what else would be ‘Thorin’s treasure,’ that he could have carried away with him? What else would bring such regrets? And what have we found missing…?”

“Óin, what have you done?” Glóin lamented. “Surely Balin was mistaken…!”

“He knew about it,” said Dwalin over the exclamations of the others. “Balin knew about it and he failed to set it right. He let one of our own take the Heart of the Mountain out of Erebor… he has shamed our family, he has shamed our Company…!”

“Óin, what trickery, what beguilement would ever bring you so low?” Glóin was crying, ripping the gems right out of his beard.

Bilbo and the others watched wide-eyed as the diamonds fell to the rug, shining white in the lamplight. Dwalin turned to the stone fireplace, lamenting and beating his fists on the marble mantle so hard the items scattered on it jumped about with each blow.

“Ash…” said Dori, “Alas, what ill news is this!” He and Nori looked at one another fearfully.

“Do you think Ori…” 

“The stone is lost to us, lost to us as our kinsmen are lost…” wailed Dwalin.

“We are dishonored, alas! Alas Óin, that you listened to him….why did you listen to Balin’s tales?” In his grief, Glóin lashed out at the only target available.  “It’s your fault, your family with all their stories, he never would have touched it if….”

Dwalin lashed right back at him in disbelief. “You blame my line, and yours harbored the very thief who took it! At least Balin has the decency to confess it…!”

As Glóin and Dwalin fell to blaming one another, Bilbo carefully backed away until a set of large chairs stood between him and the railing Dwarves.  Nori and Dori looked stupefied, Glóin and Dwalin were getting out of control and Bifur…

He looked to the brothers who had also stepped back a couple paces. They seemed pale and upset but at least they weren’t carrying on like the others. Then again, none of their direct relatives had just been implicated in a theft.  They just seemed unsure what to do….

Bifur reached down and picked up the letter that had fallen to the floor.

“Bifur!” hissed Bilbo over the noise, for now Nori and Dori were joining in on the general ruckus and beard-tearing, and he feared they would soon be exchanging blows. If they turned their distress upon the letter that had borne the news, it wasn’t likely to survive.  “Let me see that!”

Bifur looked at him, startled.

“I need to see it!” he beckoned. Bifur brought it to him, looking suddenly older, and terribly sad.

“What are we to do, Mr. Baggins?” he asked in a quiet, strained voice. “Our companions are dishonored, our very company is…”

“Hush, none of that now…” Bilbo said, opening the letter. “Something isn’t right about all this…”

Behind the shelter of the chairs, Bilbo opened the letter and laid it out on top of a footstool.  The lettering was familiar to Bilbo’s rune-trained eyes, and yet not so – but that was not what was concerning him.

“You can’t read it, can you?” asked Bifur, who was aware of Bilbo’s bookish tendencies.

“No, but that’s not why I wanted to see it. I say, they won’t hurt one another will they?”

“It is a grievous lamentation,” said Bifur.

“That doesn’t answer. Shouldn’t we… do something to calm them down? Before they take pokers to one another?”

“They won’t,” said Bofur who joined them. His voice sounded rough, and strangely pleading. “Give them time. They’ve been dishonored!”

Bilbo didn’t reply, hunkering down and poring over the letter. “Hm.”

“What is it?” asked Bofur. “What do you see?”

“I’m not sure… something just doesn’t add up. It just isn’t like them to do something like that. It just isn’t…. Here, can you bring that lamp to me? Watch out…”

Bofur nodded and quickly ducked past his wailing companions to return with the lamp.  All four of them were now blaming each other’s lineage for weaknesses several generations back, Nori and Dori having apparently concluded that Ori was indeed the scribe and thus also in the know and an accomplice. 

Well, if there was one thing Bilbo knew it was parchment, especially very old parchment.  He had been working with old documents in one form or another most of his life, and could confidently say he knew them well.  He turned the thick paper in his hands, felt the edges and ran his fingers over the creases. He held it up to the light to peer at the ink and examined the broken wax seal quite close to the lamp.

The brothers weren’t sure what he was doing, but they could tell it might be important. “What do you see?” asked Bofur again. He ducked as an emerald beard-gem flew past his head and the chair thumped briefly from some stumbling blow. The noise was incredible.

“The paper is old,” affirmed Bilbo in a moderate shout,” but something isn’t right… this crease, see how the fibers tear?  Here?  This was folded when the paper was already stiffened, not when it was fresh.  And here.  When a wax seal like this one is old, the color from the seal seeps into the paper and stains it. The wax becomes brittle, the seal fills with dust.  This one lifts from the paper cleanly… it’s too soft. And the seal is clean.  Even the edge detail here, clean as last-night’s tallow….”  They hunched over the paper to see what he meant.

“What are you saying?” exclaimed Bifur.

“Is it a trick, then?” asked Bofur anxiously. “Is it?”

“Well, I can’t be absolutely certain, but…”

He looked over at the fireplace where Dwalin and Glóin had now moved on to lamenting their own character, that they had been suspecting their own King when the fault was their own and so on.  He looked up at the brothers helplessly.

Bofur stood up. “Stop!” he boomed suddenly over the hysteria. “Mr. Baggins has something to say!”

There was a sudden startled cessation of noise that made the hobbit feel he had gone deaf.  He stood and climbed up on the footstool, holding the letter.

“Something is fishy about this,” he declared. “Before you go tearing out your braids and such, listen to me!  The letter may be a fake.”

“A fake!” said Glóin with a look that was afraid to hope.

“What do you mean?” demanded Dwalin. “That is Balin’s seal, and no other’s…!”

“No, no… hear me out,” said Bilbo, waving his hands at them to be calm. “I don’t know how the seal got there, but this letter is not old.  It was only recently written and sealed or my name’s not Baggins.  I don’t think it is from Balin at all – it’s a forgery.”

“But…” Dori began.

“A forgery?” growled Nori. “By who?”

“And why?” added Glóin. “And what about Balin’s seal? That cannot be easily forged!”

“It had to have been his!” insisted Dwalin.

Bilbo gritted his teeth over their stubbornness. “Look, I don’t know how whomever it was got ahold of Balin’s seal, or made a copy of it or whatever. But I’m telling you this just isn’t adding up.”

“I think he’s right,” said Bifur. “Tell them about it, tell them what you found!”

Bilbo took a deep breath. “In short, the paper is old, yes, but only recently written on, only recently folded. The seal is too fresh…”

“The dust in the tomb!” Nori suddenly spoke.

“It was only recently disturbed,” finished Dori with relief.  “It can’t have been from that long ago…”

“Then….” began Dwalin hesitantly.

“We are not dishonored,” Glóin said slowly.  The two of them didn’t seem to quite believe it.

“I had so hoped for a letter from him,” Dwalin said. “Hoped for better news…but this…”

“We are not dishonored!” Glóin repeated, clasping Dwalin’s arm and meeting his eyes to get through to him. “But if our Hobbit is right, we were very nearly deceived.”

Dwalin’s expression changed, that terribly broken look welling up instead to a firm resolution. His eyes sparked instead with anger and his voice came slow and deep.

“Someone has tried to make fools of us.”

“Or at least tried to get us to cease looking for the Arkenstone,” said Bifur. “If we can find out who wrote this…”

“Then we may find out who really has it,” agreed Bilbo quickly. He had already reached the same conclusion.  “But go softly, I beg you!  Please! Just because it was found by Dím doesn’t mean he had anything to do with it. Maybe it was this uncle of his he mentioned…” He liked Dím, and couldn’t quite believe the young Dwarf would do something like this.  Besides, there was the seal – how would someone as young as Dím have even known what Balin’s seal looked like much less have been able to copy it so perfectly?

“Softly? He is a forger and such deserves to have their limbs twisted by their own tools! His fingers bent until he’d never forge again.” glowered Dwalin.

“Oh, I say!” exclaimed Bilbo. “None of that, please!”

“It is the traditional punishment meted out for forgery,” said Nori, “Much less for false witness.”

“False witness! False accusations against honor!” said Glóin, who was still emotionally reeling from the near miss of his own kin being the supposed thief. “Our fathers would have ripped out his beard, cut out his tongue…”

“Good heavens!” said Bilbo, paling at the thought. “Even so! Hold off with your… tools and Dwarvish revenge and all that, just a bit!”

“For this outrage…” spluttered Dwalin.

“He’s young and it may not have even been him,” Bilbo argued. “Would you condemn him for something he may have just been an innocent messenger for?  Slow down and think about this!”

“He may be right,” Dori admitted, though without conviction. “He could be a tool for other hands…”

“Or deceived,” nodded Nori.

“Even so,” Bilbo said firmly. “That is what I will believe until I am shown otherwise. We need to talk to him first.”

“We need to…” growled Dwalin darkly.  “And then…” He left unspoken what would follow, but the tone did not imply it would be pleasant.

Bilbo shook his head and mutely appealed to the others for help. 

“We will speak to him,” said Bofur. “But not until we’ve had time for this wrath to pass.  Our thinking is not clear. Our burglar is right.”

“Former burglar, thank you,” corrected Bilbo.

“Strike while the iron is hot!” said Dwalin.

“Nay. Cool the iron to test it’s edge first,” countered Nori. “Lest we strike amiss.”

“Apply the heat slowly, and the form will be yours,” added Dori in another Dwarven proverb.

“I don’t think all of us should seek him as a group. We are too many.” Bofur observed. “He would know something was amiss.  A small number may do well to learn more of this matter. But who?”

“Dwalin and Glóin should go. They were the most affected,” Bifur pointed out.

“And Bilbo,” said Nori. They all nodded in agreement. “He trusts him.”

“I was going to insist, so I’m glad you volunteered me,” Bilbo noted. He did not trust his friends to gentleness and had hoped to be present to intervene if he could.  He tried to lighten the mood; “Dori ought to also go lest my legs tire and I need someone to carry me.”

He was rewarded for his effort with a small chuckle from his friend. “What do you think I am, a porter?  Pass the wine around, Nori.  It may help us regain our wits, which it appears we’ll be needing. Come, Dwalin, all is not lost yet. As long as we have our hobbit here, I have hope.”

“Hope of what, I wonder?” said Bilbo, but he was relieved to have them all beginning to behave like themselves again.  It had been a harrowing time.  He carefully folded the letter and pocketed it before it could start up a row all over again.  Sipping his own small portion of the woody-tasting wine he tried to gather his wits, wondering what the rest of this day might bring.