Stone of Erebor

by Primula

Chapter 17:  Time Out of Mind

The door opened partway and it was a very startled and wary Dím that peered out at them.

Dwalin did not give him time to speak.  He gave a small nod and immediately addressed him with both volume and gravity.  “Greetings, Dím, son of Dímûl.  There is need of speech with you.  We would ask of your kinsman that we may be allowed entrance to his home.”

“I…” Dím began uncomfortably.  He glanced back, then opened the door a little wider, returning with a softer voice. “My kinsman is unable to speak with you but I have his leave to tend to such matters.”  He hesitated again, looking uncertain for a moment then stepped back, giving an awkward partial bow as he was still holding onto the handle of the door.  “Please enter, I am at your service.”

“We thank you for your hospitality,” said Glóin formally as the four of them filed out of the hall into the small and smoky set of rooms.  There was no real hearth; a metal brazier burned fitfully heating a kettle. The air was thick with the tang and woody-bitter smells of medicinal herbs.

Bilbo looked around curiously.  Almost all of the time he had spent around Dwarves had been in the company of those who were of great wealth or importance.  He realized now that he really had very little idea of how the lesser Dwarves might live.  There were no oversized thick rugs here, no wide fur coverings - only two modest ones and a slightly more tattered version of the same straw floor matting he had noted in Glóin’s dining room.  At the far end of the room a sleeping alcove could be seen with a carven ledge. It was done up as a bed, the thick, dark bed-curtain pulled to one side. Below this lay a sheepskin, a heavy felt pad and a jumble of blankets as if someone else had been using the floor to sleep.  Two more small rooms could be glimpsed through a second doorway, but that seemed to be the extent of the home.

A large chair had been pulled up towards the brazier and in it sat an elderly Dwarf huddled in blankets, his only movement a slight turn of his head. The rheumy eyes wordlessly took in their appearance before going back to gazing at the fire.

“How may I serve you?” asked Dím formally, no doubt sensing that it was not a visit of friends or even acquaintances but of business matters. “If you’ve any concerns about the events of this morning…”

“No, no we haven’t. And we thank you for your aid to us,” said Glóin a little gruffly. “Forgive us for having to come to you so unexpectedly.  The matter of this morning’s search was well planned and well carried out. We are in your debt.” 

“It was my honor,” responded Dím. “If naught has gone ill with it, may I ask why you have come?  Is something amiss?”

Dwalin opened his mouth to speak, but Glóin spoke first. “There is one other matter that could not wait.  We received the letter you very properly sent on to us.”

”Oh! Oh, yes!” said Dím. “I found it when I was moving…”

“Yes, so your note said,” Dwalin cut in abruptly. “We need to know what you know of it, everything you know of it." 

There was a pause. Dím seemed taken aback by Dwalin’s bluntness, but recovered quickly. “I… it was as I said. I found it when I moved that trunk, my Uncle’s, to here, this home.” He gestured towards a large iron-bound oak trunk along one wall. “This is a new set of rooms for him; I’ve only recently finished moving his belongings.”  He paused and his brow furrowed slightly. “How did you know to come here, to his new home?”

There was another uncomfortable pause but this time it was on the part of the Company.  When they didn’t say anything, Bilbo spoke up. “We simply went to your home.  Someone was there, so we asked where you might be found and were directed here.”

“Home?” said Dím and there was an odd note to the younger dwarf’s voice.

“We beg your forgiveness, and we assure you…” began Dori. “It was…” began Glóin.

“All they did was ask and got an answer. Then whomever it was closed the door,” said Bilbo, realizing some sort of etiquette line had been crossed when that Dwarven lass has answered their knock. He tried to smooth it over and changed the topic. “That was all. You’ve obviously been very busy, moving and all. And a very nice place this is, very comfortable. I especially like the way that, er, doorway arches across the top like that. You should make all of them do that.”

Dím stared at the diminutive hobbit for a moment, then bit his lip with thought. “Nothing else?”

Bilbo glanced at his companions. They seemed to almost cringe. 

“Nothing else,” said Bilbo firmly, wondering what the penalties were for speaking out of turn to a lass here. Apparently they were quite severe if they gave his friends pause.

The younger dwarf seemed to make up his mind about something and nodded first to Bilbo then to the others, giving a tug of his chestnut beard. “It is forgiven, for the sake of this one, who has great courage and whom I trust is truthful.”

There was a communal release of breath that had been held. “Now,” Dwalin hesitantly began again, still off-balance from the tables having been turned on him.  He had come into the room expecting to be the one in charge and it had shaken him, so abruptly being placed in the position of nearly having to beg for Dim’s mercy.  

“Dímûl!” said the elderly dwarf by the fire.  “Dímûl!” It was the first this one had spoken, and they all turned to look at him. 

Dím went to him, speaking back over his shoulder at his visitors. “He believes I am my father sometimes,” he explained apologetically. “He is…very old.”

“Dímûl, where is my tea?” the dwarf said querulously. “I am thirsty.” Dím tucked the blankets back around his arms, which he promptly untucked again.

“I’ll get it for you; it’s almost ready,” he said soothingly.  He looked back up at them. “If you’ll excuse me for just a moment. I fear it is a medicinal tea, so I cannot offer you hospitality… My apologies, if it were my own home….” 

“No, no, that’s fine. Do what you need to,” said Dori.  They all shifted their feet self-consciously and waited as Dím went to the an alcove at the side and returned with a small mug.  He scooped in a spoonful of the concoction he had apparently been making when they interrupted him and poured the kettle’s steaming water over it to steep.  It smelled woody and green.

The herbs were neatly lined up along with their mortar and pestle, nearly filling a white stone shelf near the brazier.  For the first time, Bilbo noticed there were other small shelves carved into the walls here and there, niches to hold things and a small rack of hooks with some tools suspended from them. A couple of niches had even been fitted with hinged doors.

How clever, he thought. But then, I suppose it isn’t that different from when we hollowed out the Hill to build that extra pantry. What a mess that was, though I enjoyed playing in the dirt. Must be why I remember my mother constantly washing me. What do Dwarven children remember, I wonder. Playing with rocks?

“A moment! Mizûl, is that you?” asked Glóin suddenly. They all looked more closely at him, even Bilbo who wouldn’t know one way or the other. The elderly dwarf’s head bobbed up and his eyes swiveled around at the name, but there was no recognition in them. He mumbled something unintelligible and reached for the tea.

“Wait, wait,” said Dím, blocking his reach. “I have to strain it… There, careful.”  He held the cup to steady it and brushed away stray strands of beard that got in the way. He looked up at his visitors again, with a flush to his cheek.  “Did you know him?”

Glóin frowned, nodding. “He was the instructor at the Northern forges for many a season.  My own son learned his first strokes under his hand. I knew he had retired from his work, but…”

“You were not told why, then?”

“My son said his mind was wandering… I had no idea…”

“I remember him, though it’s been more than three years since we spoke. His appearance is much changed... He’s a fine craftsman,” said Dwalin.  He sounded more subdued.

“Or was…” said Dím softly from where he knelt by the chair.  His uncle didn’t seem to realize he was even being talked about. The old lips placidly pulled at the rim of the cup, drinking the tea. “Sometimes he still comes back to himself, but more and more he is wandering.”

“Well,” said Dwalin, clearing his throat. “We greatly regret his decline. His work shall be missed at the forges, though his name shall be remembered.  Do you think… hem, he might be able to tell us something about this letter, if we were to show it to him?  It is of grave importance to us.”

Dím took the empty teacup from the aged hands. Mizûl clutched at the air where the cup had been, agitated, until his nephew stooped and quickly handed him a small wooden mallet.  He grasped it with surprising strength, muttered something and quieted in his blankets.

“He is comforted by the feel of the tools,” he explained wryly. “And the mallet does the least damage to the brazier if he mistakes it for the forge.”  He looked down, arranging the trailing ends of the woolen blankets. “I can understand why it would be very important to you. You are welcome to show him the letter, of course, though I cannot say if he will know it. He never spoke of it to me, and he is quite old.”

“So are we,” grunted Dwalin.  He patted his pockets then looked about at his companions. Bilbo somewhat reluctantly handed it over. Dwalin unfolded the letter. “Though it remains to be seen…”  He did not finish the thought.  Instead, he stepped forward.  Bending down, he held the letter where the invalid’s eyes could see it, though he was careful to keep it out of reach.

“Mizûl, can you hear me?  It’s Dwalin, son of Fundin. Do you know me?”

They all watched as the smith’s face creased in thought. He looked at Dwalin for a long moment, mouthing something silently. “Ahhhh,” he said softly, something like a spark of recognition in his face.

“Yes, Mizûl. It’s Dwalin. I’ve…come to see you.  Do you know this letter?” He moved the paper to match with Mizûl’s line of sight. “Where did you get this? Is it truly from Balin?”

Mizûl stared at it blankly for a long moment. “Who?” he breathed. “Who?”  Dwalin seemed unsure how to answer.

“Who what?” prompted Glóin, “Who is Dwalin, or who is the letter from?”

Mizûl did not respond. He looked at Dwalin again as if seeking a cue.

“This letter - did you get it from Balin?” Dwalin tried again.

“Balin?” said Mizûl peering at Dwalin. He sat up slightly and spoke with a sudden, rasping clarity “You’re back again, are you? I told you I won’t go!  He’s gone… I told you… It’s impossible.  Why did you come back? Why are you here again?”  He waited for an answer.

Dwalin was somewhat taken aback. “I am…sorry. I’m not Balin, I am his brother. Balin’s been away… I just needed to know about this letter.”

Mizûl blinked at him, the dim confusion suffused his eyes once more and he lowered his gaze to the mallet laying in his blankets.

Dím spoke softly from his uncle’s side. “He won’t understand…”

Bilbo agreed. “Dwalin, I’ve seen old Hobbits that were like this.  One of them was bound and determined that I was his deceased son-in-law and nothing would dissuade him.  I found he was much happier and made more sense if I just pretended that I was, whenever I greeted him.  Maybe if you were Balin, for a few moments anyway… the two of you do bear a certain resemblance, after all.”

Dwalin looked distressed.

“Only for a moment,” encouraged Dori.

“Very well. I’ll try,” he said, his voice gruff with frustration.  He gathered himself for a moment then turned back to the silent dwarf by the brazier. “Mizûl. Mizûl!  It’s Balin. I’ve come to see you.”

Mizûl’s head came up and hunted around, like a hound seeking the scent of its master on the wind.  “Balin?” he quavered.  “I cannot go.”  His eyes seemed to slowly focus on Dwalin where he stood, still holding out the letter.

“I know you can’t…go,” said Dwalin carefully. “And I agree. It’s all right. I didn’t come to ask you to go.  I just need to know…” he considered, trying to think of what might make sense in this context. “I need to know if you can still take this letter to my brother. ”

“Letter?” Mizûl peered at it. He made a querulous noise in his throat and looked back up at Dwalin. “Where is the seal?” he demanded.

Dwalin paused to think. Of course; the letter was open. “My seal?  I can seal it…”

“I haven’t finished it. I haven’t finished it.  You must give me more time.”  He grabbed the mallet and waved it up and down for emphasis. 

They were all confused by this. “You haven’t finished…the letter…?” tried Dwalin.

“You can’t seal it, it’s cracked!  I cannot go, I tell you.”

“I know you can’t go. That’s fine. This letter was in your home, Mizûl. Where did you get it?  Did… I give it to you?”

“It’s cracked.  The seal is NO GOOD.” Shouted Mizûl with sudden surprising energy.  He seemed angry, half raising himself from the chair. The mallet waved around in circles and glanced off the edge of the brazier with a clang.  “I’ve told you….!” 

“Uncle, Uncle!” Dím said, intervening and pulling down the old arms as they gesticulated through the air, soothing him with soft words.  Mizûl looked at his nephew and gradually quieted and settled until he allowed the scattered blankets to be tucked back in again.   He mumbled to himself and his eyes closed as if he were very weary.

“What is this he says about Balin’s seal?” asked Glóin.

Dori nodded beside him. “I was wondering the same.”

Bilbo looked to the youth. “Do you know anything about this?”

“I thought he was saying the seal was cracked open on the letter,” said Dím. He gave an apologetic shrug. “As I said, he doesn’t make much sense.”

“Want…. where….” muttered Mizûl, twisting at his blankets. He dropped the mallet.  Dím put it back in his hands. He dropped it again.  “Where… can’t….”

“Forgive me, but he will be needing medicine, and sleep.  I think it’s worn him out.  I am truly sorry you did not learn what you wanted to know.  I’ll certainly tell you if he says anything that seems to make sense about it.”  Dím was very businesslike, brushing them away.

“Of course,” said Bilbo and Dori at the same time. Glóin nodded. They began to turn back towards the door. Dwalin did not follow them.

He frowned. “I for one am not satisfied with this at all. I think there’s still something that may be learned from him. Are we to give up so easily, with so much at stake?”

“Where is it…!” repeated the elderly smith, with a note of desperation in his voice. He threw one of his blankets to one side and beat on the arms of the chair with his hands. Dím looked  extremely uncomfortable and tried handing him a large spice box from the shelf as a distraction.  Mizûl’s papery hands felt it and clutched at it convulsively, pulling it to his chest.

“After he’s rested,” said Glóin firmly, taking Dwalin’s elbow in his grasp to draw him towards the door.  “It will serve no purpose to exhaust him.  I think his kinsman is right. We shall have to try again later.”

The others offered polite farewells as they withdrew from the chamber.  The door shut behind them with a click.

Out in the hallway, Dwalin pulled away. He shook the letter in Glóin’s face. “We should have stayed. Investigated that trunk of his.  Maybe there are more like this one, did you ever think of that?”

Glóin shook his head. “He is old, Dwalin. So are we. We’ll try again.  It would serve no purpose to stay and witness the abasement of his dotage; in all decency, we need to leave him in privacy until he has rested.  It would be dishonorable to do otherwise.”  They retraced their steps back down the hallway.  “What did you think of his nephew’s tale?” he asked. “Do you think he was being truthful with us, that it was found in that trunk?”

“I think so,” offered Dori.  “He seems trustworthy.  But I also trust Bilbo’s knowledge of such things.  He said the letter wasn’t as old as it ought to be.”

“It isn’t,” confirmed Bilbo once again. “But I can’t say I understand this puzzle either.”

“I am of the same mind,” said Glóin. “Only the most trustworthy relatives would be allowed anywhere around the elderly whose minds are wandering, as they might accidentally divulge secrets in their doddering ways.  The lad is genuine, yet the letter is not.”  He glanced at his fellow dwarves. “How well did you know Mizûl, either of you?  Do you think he could invent such tales and write them down, when he was yet lucid? ”

“I barely knew him at all,” said Dori.  “I cannot say.”

Dwalin pursed his lips. “I knew him long ago, more for his work with Balin on occasion than because of any lasting friendship between us.  I had wondered why Balin did not take Mizûl with him when he left, but I think we can now safely say that he did ask him.”

“And Mizûl did not go,” nodded Glóin.

“Obviously.  I knew no deceit in him, but that does not mean he was not capable of it.”

“Could it have been a dream?” asked Bilbo.  “Not in a regular sense, I mean, but the sort of jumbles that a person gets when they’re feverish?  If he’s been ill for some time, it has to be considered.”

They thought on this as they walked.  Glóin stroked his beard. “I can see this. If he believed it true, then he could have written it without intending deceit.  The penalties for forgery are severe and I can see no reason he would risk it in his right mind.”

Dwalin was not inclined to be so generous. “That doesn’t explain why he would make it appear to be from my brother, nor the seal,” he glowered. “The timing of it is also suspect.  I can see it being risked for the sake of the Stone, whether in his right mind or no.”

Bilbo suddenly stopped in his tracks.  “Dwalin,” he asked. “Didn’t you say he had been a metal-worker?”

“One of the best,” Dwalin said.

“Could he have done very, very fine work, filigrees and pictures and such?”

“Yes, most assuredly so.  A shame to lose his art.” said Glóin. “Why do you ask?”

“I… I’m not quite ready to say.  Let me think on it a little more.”  He waved their curiosity away and continued walking, listening to them talk though inwardly his mind was  now far from their conversation.  He was trying to sharpen his senses so he could be certain of finding his way back again: he wanted to see something in that room again. Alone.