Stone of Erebor

by Primula

Chapter 18:  Boxed In

Walking along with the others as they whispered and muttered to one another about the unsuccessful visit, Bilbo turned his thoughts this way and that in silence. How could he surreptitiously slip back to that room, uninvited and unseen?  That was much more difficult to do now than it had been in his younger days, but if his much vaunted luck held he was willing to try it.

The trouble, he pondered, was how to do it without bringing a gaggle of Dwarves along with him.  They had been directed to watch over him, to escort him.  How could he keep them from following him?  All the way back to Glóin’s suite he mulled this over, watching his steps carefully so he could be assured of knowing his way back.

Back in the now-familiar rooms and halls, the remainder of the day eked along terribly slowly; he became more restless as the hours passed, falling into a peevish mood as his companions talked, debated, argued and bemoaned incessantly.  No matter which ones he was with he found their diversions too Dwarvish in nature to engage him and their very presence began to seem noisy, cluttery and irritating.  He was hard pressed to keep his manners and conversation pleasant.  The only event that he found to truly lift his mood in the entire evening was the wonderfully sumptuous dinner.

After all, when a tender roast lamb is carried in upon its silver tray, stuffed with spring onions to complement the fish soup, nothing can seem too gloomy.  Fat golden loaves of braided egg-bread were pulled apart in good-natured competition, goodly chunks of amethyst beets and reddened sweet carrots were speared, heady with flavor after being cooked in wine.  He ate heartily of these, plus several of the small meat and cabbage dumplings that were heaped on the sideboard.  It was a shame that most of the party were still too out of sorts to properly appreciate their meal.  Even the dessert failed to properly perk them up.  Bilbo sniffed appreciatively at the darkly moist brandy cake, all flecked with fruit that shone like gems when sliced upon the bright plates. He topped it with clotted cream and then generously consumed the extra portions, lest they go to waste.

It was difficult to wait until each dwarf had departed for his own home, though they did so earlier than before; all were worn from the unusual activity they’d had the past couple of days.  He was not the only one who retired soon claiming fatigue, though it is possible he was the only one who was not truly weary.  Tugging the curtain across the opening in the bedchamber, he did not change into bedclothes but instead lay awake on the bed with only a light cover pulled up under his chin. Above him, he watched the last of the deep blue fading to black in the sky. The small stars brightened until they shone brighter than icing pips on a burnt chocolate cake.

It was so relaxing he snorted awake some time later, surprised he had been asleep.  He listened carefully.  All was silent. Slowly sliding from the bed to peer around the edge of the thick curtain he assured himself that no one was there. A dim light came from the last of the embers settling in the fireplace, just enough for him to make his way to the door without bumping furniture.  The heavy door unbolted silently. Grateful for the perfectly greased locks and balanced hinges of his Dwarven hosts, he silently slipped out into an abandoned, darkened hallway.

As silently and carefully as only a hobbit may be when they are trying to be careful, he slipped around the corners and back down through the dimmed halls of the sleeping mountain.  It should have felt more dangerous than it did, he thought.  After all, it had been made quite clear that a roaming hobbit was a suspect hobbit; he had no idea what a guard might do if he was found without an escort.  Lock him up until Dáin could see him?  Take him back to Glóin?  He had written out a brief note giving out his intended destination and tucked it under his pillow; if for some reason he did not return he assumed it would be found and he would be rescued from…whatever….

Being within the Mountain he found little difference to show the passing of time.  The dark corridors were traversed easily enough.  True, the lights (never plentiful) were even fewer and there was a silence that only now made him aware of the hum of activity he had been surrounded with before; little else had changed from daytime.  He smiled to also realize how much muffled snoring he could hear from all directions, like a darkened Bag End after an exceptionally large and late-running party. 

Smooth, cool, dark stone slid under his hands as he ran his fingertips along the walls for guidance.  Mercifully the floors were just as smooth, clean and well-kept so the only danger of barking his toes came from unexpected steps.  He considered helping himself to a small lamp but decided against it, continuing along in the darkness. It was, after all, a clean, peaceful darkness that no longer hinted at the years of uninvited habitation by Smaug.  Somewhere in the far off distance he could hear something like hammers; the nighttime sounds of the always-busy forge, little else.

All went better than he had dared to hope.  There was one near encounter, scrambling to hide from a middle-aged dwarf who lumbered out of a side-hall rather abruptly.  Indeed it was a nod to Bilbo’s general good fortune that the dwarf was half-asleep and missed him entirely, the thickly bearded face gave not so much as a flicker as he passed a crouching hobbit hiding behind a woefully inadequate stone bench.

When Bilbo at last reached Dím’s home he was even more grateful to find the door firmly closed. No light showed beneath the door’s edge upon its well-fitted threshold.  Hopefully the young dwarf and his sister were safely asleep at this hour.  He couldn’t help but think on that chance encounter they had had with… well, he didn’t know her name.  Come to think of it, he couldn’t think of a single instance of a dwarf-woman’s name in anything he had studied.  Surely they *had* names…. Probably names of gems or metals, he thought, but in Dwarvish…

Turning and tiptoeing down the next hallway he was brought up short for a moment, amazed that he had never thought about whether or not his own Companions were wed.  Being a confirmed bachelor himself, marriage was not a large part of his own life though he had lifted many a toast at friends’ and relatives’ weddings over the years.  Obviously Glóin had a wife, or at least had had one in the past.  He had never mentioned her… Was she yet living? Where was she?  Hidden away someplace, behind some secret door or off in some hidden community where dwarf-women stayed all together?  Was it possible that some of those many hours Gimli was gone from his rooms he was not working after all but visiting with his mother, or even a sweetheart?  Bilbo shook his head, both at himself for it not occurring to him before now, and at Dwarves in general.  What a strange race they were.

Thinking of them also sobered him again. If what he suspected and sought for was true, they would not forgive the perpetrator but would punish most harshly, unlike his own folk.  He set himself to insert a little Shire grace if it was possible.

Counting doorways he passed the crossed axes and slowed to a stop.  Here it was. His hand slowly settled on the handle of the door and gently pulled on the latch to see if it was locked. It wasn’t.  Once more he owed his stealth to Dwarven perfection in lock and hinge as the door swung open soft as an owl’s flight. Slipping inside the warmth of the room, he gently closed the door behind him.  In the near darkness the brown-green scent of medicines, tea and smoke enfolded him.

He stood very still for a long moment, taking stock of his surroundings. The dimly lit room seemed almost bright after the long darkness of the hallway. There was no movement, just the slight rasp of a breath, slowed in sleep.

The empty chair still stood by the brazier and in the light of its coals he could see Mizûl across from it. He lay asleep upon the bed with the alcove drapes only partially pulled to.  The large wooden spice box sat on the floor, a square brown block of shadow upon the lighter fleece rug.  Beside it,  just below the limp, withered hands of its owner the thick wooden mallet lay. 

Bilbo stood by the door, watching the even rise and fall of Mizûl’s chest for another moment then silently stole forward to the chair, half-hiding behind it. The brazier was warm on his back.  He slowly slid away from the chair, lowering himself to stay within its shadow like a cat slowly circling in on some small prey among the grasses.

Reaching the edge of the sheepskin rug, he bent until he was almost crawling across the floor. He reached out one hand and ever so slowly grasped at the carven, dark spice box that lay so near under the dangling quiescent hands.  His fingers nudged it, it was bulky and tipped slightly as he pulled it along the rug.  The latched lid shifted slightly, a wooden whisper no louder than a breath.

With an astonishing and sudden ferocity the old smith roared up out of his bed.   

If it had not been for the tangle of the bedclothes and covers Bilbo would have been in serious trouble;  as it was he barely had time to dodge.  The mass of writhing cloth surged upward as Mizûl snarled, kicked and heaved his way out.  Stunned, Bilbo rapidly backpedaled away from him instinctively pulling in and clutching the spice box tightly to his chest.  It was heavy. 

As a child who has been warned about not climbing into a bull-pen will run in unreasoning circles around the corral when that animal gives chase upon him, so Bilbo ran. He had no thought or plan or strategy but to avoid the roaring, flapping mass of shadowed Dwarf that was bearing erratically down upon him.  Around the chair, behind the brazier, back across the bed, past the trunk, over to the far wall and back to the chair he ran.  He ducked under the overhang of shelves that ran along the walls as the old smith found his mallet and began using it wherever he could reach, crying out hoarsely in Dwarvish all the while he hammered.

Another confused ricochet around the room, this time including a brief frantic attempt at opening the door before he was driven away from it.  There was a tremendous clatter as tools were wrenched from their hooks on the wall, the frail seeming arms of the invalid strengthened in their defense against a thief.  Bilbo knew how Dwarves were about thieves.  He dodged around the brazier with dwindling hope of survival as that worthy old heating-bowl rung like a bell in a near-miss with a hammer. Embers flew overhead.  He tried for the door again but to his great dismay overshot it, scrabbling along the far side with no handle in reach.  Mizûl was right behind him.  He panicked as he realized he was cornered and grabbed at a tall, heavy stone urn, fear adding strength to his hands so that he forced himself between it and the wall as a shield.  He flinched as the stone shuddered and fractured beside his head with the force of Mizûl’s hewing at it.  The scent of coal rose from it’s lid.

“Hoy there!” he tried in a squeak. “Hold up on your blows! Friend! Friend!”

The door opened.

“Uncle!” cried Dím’s voice. “Uncle! Uncle, what is it?  Calm, be calmed!”  This was followed by a some rapidly spoken Dwarvish in soothing tones, and Bilbo could see the younger dwarf’s hands on his relative’s arms, pulling them down, trying to lead the old one back towards his bed.  Elderly or not, Mizûl was not inclined to go so easily. 

“Thief! Thief…” he panted and growled, though less strongly than before. Pulling away from his nephew’s grasp he tried to return to the door.  It was still ajar but having swung wide it was now hiding where Bilbo hunkered behind the stone coal-urn.  Mizûl paused in front of the door panel as if in confusion at Bilbo’s seeming disappearance.

Dím put hands to his shoulders, trying to turn him back towards the bed again. “There’s no thief, Uncle, you were dreaming. Come lie down, it’s late. You need your medicine.”  He wheedled and comforted and talked until the old dwarf finally allowed himself to be led to the bed where he sat heavily, still breathing hard and coughing. He reluctantly released the heavy hammer he had pulled from the wall, letting Dím take it from his hand to replace it with the lighter wooden mallet.  Dím shook out the tangle of covers and smoothed them out on the bed again, hunting around for something on the floor as he did so but apparently not finding it.

Speaking in a nonstop gentle voice about soothing, simple things he turned to the shelves and poked around among the boxes and bundles of herbs. He was now beginning to look concerned, working his way along them.  “What have you done with it this time?” he asked in the same gentle singsong. “Just lie down, lie down, we’ll soon have you right as rubies…”

“Soft as opals and good as…” He reached over and swung the shielding door shut. “…gold. Mr. Baggins!”