Stone of Erebor

by Primula

Chapter 19:  Memento

The dwarf literally jumped with surprise. 

Bilbo peered up at him apologetically from behind the battered urn, still clutching the heavy spice box to his chest.  He coughed slightly.  “Ehem… I.…”

Dím somehow managed to keep modulating his voice, glancing back at the old dwarf who was now laying sideways on the bed. “What are you doing here?” he whispered fiercely before going back to his singsong, even if it did sound slightly strangled. “Let me just get the water heated up for your tea, Uncle…”

“I can explain,” Bilbo whispered back, “but I’m not sure it’s safe to come out.”

Dím didn’t reply, but keeping an eye on Bilbo he turned to the dented brazier and stirred the coals to bring the flame back up, resuming the gentle patter as he set a small kettle of water to heat.  “…Just a little tea and you’ll soon feel more yourself.  It was just a dream…” 

Mizûl made his querulous sound and grumbled something in Dwarvish, hunting around in his covers for something.  Bilbo eyed him distrustfully from behind the relative safety of the urn and stayed right where he was in spite of the discomfort. The stone was cold and the scent of the coal so near his face was making him sick.  He squinted down at the box in his hands and tentatively tried the latch.  It was locked. 

Dím went to his uncle and helped him lie down properly, pulling the blankets up and speaking to him low and soft.  He reached over and pulled the thick bed-drapes slightly, just enough to block the occupant’s view of the door where Bilbo peeped out at them.

“Quietly now,” he whispered as he crossed back to Bilbo’s hiding place.  “Come out. I'll speak with you after he’s asleep.  I’m sure that it must…”  He saw the box in Bilbo’s hands and faltered to a stop, paling.  “What are you doing with that?”

Dissembling, Bilbo looked down at the locked spice box as if surprised that it was there.  “I have no idea! I just grabbed it when he started in with that hammer, trying to defend myself. He seemed to be, er, mistaking me for one of his filigrees.”

Dím’s mouth set into a thin line. “No wonder he was upset. That’s… never mind. Here, let me have it,” he said firmly.  He reached for it and as Bilbo reluctantly handed it over he could feel the young dwarf’s hands trembling.

Without further comment, Dím quickly carried it to the restless Mizûl and tucked it into the elder’s hands.  Mizûl grasped it like a child and lay where he was, cradling the box and staring at the brazier’s orange glow upon the kettle as if nothing untoward had ever happened, only his rasping breathing and mussed hair showing the recent exertions.

Bilbo tentatively slid out from behind the stone and straightened up, slowly brushing bits of rock and coal dust from his clothing. He watched Mizûl warily, torn between wanting to just go back out the door and wondering if he ought to be wheedling and sing-songing too.  He tried to appear as innocent as he could, though the very fact of his presence in the room had to be explained somehow…

“What are you doing here?” Dím repeated softly, though with the intensity of his gaze he may as well have shouted it. He measured a spoonful of herbs into a mug and set it near the brazier to wait for the water.  “And why, after you swore to your honesty, were you trying to steal something from a helpless old dwarf?”

“Helpless? I beg to differ…” began Bilbo.

“Why?”
 
 “I was doing nothing of the kind! I only wanted to…”

“You were trying to take that box,” he hissed.

“All right, I confess I was curious what was in it. Not to steal it, mind you.  Just to see. I just wanted to see what was in it. Hobbits are… a…a hopelessly curious race.” 

There was a long silence as both of them contemplated the smith, laying on his side in bed with the box cradled close. The wrinkled eyelids lifted and lowered with a slight shine from the brazier but he seemed unaware of them.

“You have to admit there have been some mysteries,” Bilbo softly continued after a time. He discarded his earlier thought of trying to further dissemble, choosing to speak plainly. He owed it to Dím after causing all the ruckus with his elderly relative, justified or not. “We told you we are missing a treasure, and then there was that very strange letter that so conveniently showed up when we met you, telling about that very thing…”

Dím rapidly glanced around the room with alarm, as if expecting several other people to suddenly appear.  “So you were sent…”

“No one sent me. It was my own idea and I didn’t even tell anyone,” Bilbo cut in. “Though the others are not going to be long behind me, I would guess.  If there is anything odd going on you would probably do better to place a little trust in me than to wait until they all come down upon your head.  Perhaps we can set it right.”

There was another long silence. Dím, his face now impassive, picked up the kettle and poured it though the water was barely steaming.  He stirred it, strained it and took it over to the bed where he propped up his uncle with a strong arm and helped him to his drink.  It was only after Mizûl pushed away his hand, coughed and was settled back into his bed with the curtain pulled near around him that the younger dwarf spoke again.

“I did find that parchment, behind my uncle’s chest when I moved it…I swear that I told you the truth.”  He decisively pushed the cork stopper back onto the tea crock.

Bilbo considered him closely. “Was it already written on? And sealed?”

The crock clattered against its companions on the shelf. Dím shoved it into place so hard it nearly rebounded back off. He stopped and bowed his head, one hand combing fitfully through the strands of his beard. “It was… it… I swear I was….”

“It wasn’t was it?” said Bilbo. It was not really a question, but a statement. “It was an old parchment, true, but you forged the letter.”

Still Dím kept his head bowed.  His voice came soft, but harsh. “If it was a forgery, I swear I know nothing about it. I would never have delivered it to you if I had thought it was.  I am not disloyal to the heroes of our realm or to their memory…”

“Aren’t you?” asked Bilbo in return. “By it you unjustly accused one of them and had the others fearing for their family honor. What is so loyal about that?”

“I am not disloyal!” hissed Dím in what seemed honest distress. “I’m not…”

“Then explain the seal,” the hobbit persisted, ignoring the claim of innocence. ‘Why go to the extent of using Balin’s seal and where did it come from anyway?”

Dím looked over to Mizûl as if to an advocate, twisting at his dark beard. “He’s… I was…”

“Go on,” Bilbo said.  He considered the younger one who was becoming so terribly rattled and tried calming him down. “Why don’t we have some of that tea ourselves while we talk?”

“It’s medicinal,” said Dím with difficulty. “But I have some rosehips…” He scrubbed the back of a hand across his face and turned to the shelves, drawing down a string-tied pouch of them.

“That would be fine. My thanks.” Bilbo stepped to the side of the room where he had noticed a small amount of neatly stacked crockery. He selected two of the smaller mugs and brought them back with him.  Nothing like a cup of something hot to introduce civility to a situation.  Dím measured a spoonful of dried rosehips into each and they poured the steaming water over them. Seating themselves near the brazier along with a small handful of dry cardamom biscuits Dím had pulled from a basket, they silently stirred the orange-red pods, letting them bob around on the water, soaking and finally sinking into the depths. 

Bilbo finally sipped at the tangy tea while his companion began haltingly to speak.  He spoke not of the letter or the box, but of the elderly dwarf that lay before them in the faint light.  He spoke of his pride in his uncle’s work, in the honor his family had because of it.  Of years spent after his father’s death in the company of the old smith. 

“We came from the Iron Mountains,” he said. “They are far, far from here…I’ve never seen them myself but I have heard of them in tales from my youngest days. He fought in the Battle of Five Armies, and great was his valor, though he fought not with an axe but a mighty hammer. Oh, how I wish I could have seen those days!  They must have been glorious.”

“I wouldn’t really call them that,” said Bilbo whose thoughts had been drawn back not to any glory but to the remembrance of the smoke-ridden, blood-stained valley he had viewed after the fighting was finished. “Though we were glad enough to have it over and done with.”

“Your people are not a fighting folk, are they?” asked Dím. “Do they shape weapons or do they bear them in battle?”

“No,” said Bilbo with a shake of his head. “They do neither.  They are farmers, mostly, and peaceable.  We do have some smiths but they mostly concern themselves with the mending of carts or shoeing of ponies. It is not our way to seek out war at all, much less in vengeance.”

“What a strange thing that must be. Who avenges them, then? What metals do they use?”

“Vengeance is not thought of much…I admit that I don’t even know how to answer your question. Iron, copper…silver, I guess. I had some silver spoons that were beautifully shaped.”

“They have mines then, and smelters and forges,” said Dím eagerly, warming with curiosity. “I was taught that you lived within a hill there. Was it a very rich mine? Were there gems?”

“No,” smiled Bilbo. “It wasn’t a mine at all, just a fine dwelling within a hill…” He sighed slightly in remembrance of it.  “I had a garden there… Yes, there are gems a-plenty in the Shire but they are mostly living ones, for we have gardens, and often name our lasses for flowers and gemstones.”

Dím sat and thought about this for a moment.  Bilbo bit into another biscuit which promptly crumbled all over his shirt. 

“I was named for my father,” said Dím slowly. “And he is gone. When my father’s older brother who lays before us breathes his last, I will have no near relations older than myself. I will be eldest.”

He looked down at his hands, wrapped around his now-empty tea mug. “I will be the one who carries on our family honor then.  But how can that be, if I am not honorable with you now?” He took a deep breath and held it a long moment.

Bilbo waited, surreptitiously picking the larger crumbs off of his front and eating them.  Sitting still was reminding him how tired he was and he was grateful for the pick-me-up at this late hour.

“My uncle knew Balin closely.  I did not deceive you when I said that. He was proud of it, and Balin really did try to get him to go with him when they left.  I believe it was only the burden of needing to care for our family line that kept him here.” He looked up at the grizzled sleeping form on the bed again. As if he knew he was being spoken of, Mizûl coughed slightly and made some dry rasping sounds in his throat before settling back into sleep.

“I have heard of his work and it was spoken of with admiration,” offered Bilbo, trying to keep him going.

“It is his work that concerns you now,” said Dím after another moment.  His voice sounded slightly strangled as he continued, forcing the words out. “For Balin entrusted no other than Mizûl of the Iron Mountains with the form and repair of his… personal seal.”

Bilbo’s eyebrows shot upwards and several of his remaining crumbs flew off to be lost on the floor.

Dím continued, staring fixedly at the brazier as if to save his life. “And when the seal’s metal was flawed and… a crack was found, he remade it.  But he kept the flawed one, kept it deep within that chest, where…” He stopped.

“Where you found it,” finished Bilbo.  He swirled the last of his tea in the cup thoughtfully, watching the bloated bits of rosehip slipping across the bottom. “And I think I can guess why you were tempted to use it.”

Dím turned to him in surprise grown fearful. “You can?”

Bilbo was suddenly struck by the way this dwarf, younger, larger and stronger than he with the distinct advantage over him in many ways – not the least being he could easily accuse him as both trespasser and thief – cringed beside him with guilt like a hobbit child caught pulling off the crust-edges of pies cooling in a window. 

Bilbo spoke very carefully and softly. “I don’t think you meant to frame anyone, you just wanted to turn the attention away from the Mountain.  Away from anyone in the Mountain who might know where that missing treasure might be.  So you decided to use someone who was no longer here, someone who would have known about this treasure also…”

Dím put his hands over his face. “I… I even thought about…you….”

“Of course,” nodded Bilbo as if this were the most obvious thing in the world. He patted the dwarf’s arm consolingly to show he was not taking it personally, though inside a little portion of his thoughts was running around in circles hollering about it and waving its arms with indignation. “A stranger of another race who was known in the past to work as a Burglar. So. Why didn’t you?”

Dím scrubbed at his face with his hands. “I…well, once I met you… I… liked you.  I had no desire to hurt you…”

“I am rather fond of you also. Thank you,” Bilbo said, trying to cover up the awkwardness. “And it was right decent of you.  You could have had me out on a ledge or something when you found me there in Dáin’s dressing-room.  But you didn’t. I haven’t forgotten that courtesy.”  Dím nodded gratefully.

“Though you know,” continued Bilbo, “you could do with some lessons if that’s the way you’re inclined. Sending a forged notice about it to the very folk who are looking for it wasn’t really all that smart. Of course they would come looking here, after that!  Next time just stay quiet.  But what am I saying, eh? You shan’t be doing this again, right?  Now!” He brushed away the last of the crumbs. “How did you end up with the Arkenstone?”

Dím’s eyes nearly bugged right out of his head. Bilbo thought for a moment he was going to have some kind of fit.  His mug fell to the rug, spilling a small, red trail of rosehips. He gasped, choked and made some odd squalling noises down in his throat.

“Yes,” Bilbo nodded imperturbably. “I know what you keep in that spice box.” He was pleased with himself for being able to state this so smoothly, especially as it was not until that very moment that he was truly sure of it.  Dím’s expression confirmed it; Bilbo felt as if little fireworks were going off inside of his head and stifled a desire to jump up and down and shout with triumph.

“He needs it,” cried Dím.  Mizûl stirred at the sound and somehow Dím managed to pull his voice back to a quieter level. “He…he saw it…”

“He was one that helped make Thorin’s tomb,” Bilbo prodded.

“And he saw it… he held it. He could not forget it, ever. Who could?” Dím held his hands out towards him, as if pleading.

“Indeed, who could?” Bilbo agreed softly. He remembered its incomparable beauty well himself, even after all these years. He had known its weight within that box. Already he was wanting to open it and gaze upon the gem once more himself.  If it was thus for a Hobbit, what must it be like for a Dwarf?

“He needs it,” repeated Dím. “Ever he would speak of it, and then…when his mind began to fail him he would wake at night crying for it.  You can’t imagine the guilt that haunted him, that he desired to take it for himself…you understand, surely…?”

“Did he go himself, then, to…” Bilbo hunted around for a word that would not connote thievery. “…to fetch it?”

Dím gave him an anguished look. “I aided him. Please, do not think me a thief also!  He would not be dissuaded, as his health failed him so his desire for it grew. He wanted it and nothing else, night or day.  I…I honestly believe he would have died if he had not been able to hold it again…. You understand…?”

“That’s twice you have asked me if I understand,” said Bilbo. He grimaced slightly and shut his own eyes against the memory of something that he had once had, a treasure that had seemed to call out to him if ever he left it. Something of great beauty and incomparable worth. “Yes,” he whispered. “I think I do.”

There was another pause. Bilbo straightened his back and took a breath. “Well. And so he opened the tomb and you put it into a box for him, so it would not be openly seen.  But then the unexpected happened…others also opened that tomb and found it was missing.”

“Yes,” whispered Dím.

“What were you going to do with it if they hadn’t? Just keep it in that box forever?”

“No!” exclaimed Dím so vehemently that Bilbo jumped and leaned back away from him.

Mizûl groaned, but this time his nephew ignored his sounds. “I was going to put it back, after…” He let the sentence remain unfinished, hanging in the air. They both knew what he had been about to say.

“Does he have much time left?” Bilbo asked gently.

“No,” whispered the young dwarf. His shoulders slumped. “No, I have only small healing skills, but even I know what I see.  All the signs are there.”

“He was very active earlier this evening.”

“I am amazed that he had such strength yet in him. He will pay dearly for it, I fear. Only that box being taken from him could have brought out such fight.” He turned toward the herbs and medicines that lined the marble shelf, speaking rapidly.

“I’ve done all I can, without having to pay a healer.  Some of it I mix with sweet oil…. The coltsfoot and comfrey are both for the swelling; my neighbor told me to try the tea with licorice root but I haven’t yet.  Maybe when summer comes…” he trailed off, looking troubled and grieved.  “But I don’t expect he will be with me when summer comes.”  He leaned on the shelf and looked back at Bilbo. “What can I do?  How can I set this right, when its loss will surely be the end of my uncle’s life?”

This was an unexpected twist, Bilbo thought. To finally find it, but have the price of a life hanging on its restoration.  Would his Companions be merciful or understanding?  He doubted it.  He remembered Dwalin and Glóin speaking of the crippling of the hands, the cutting of the tongue… He shivered. No, Dwarven vengeance was an ugly thing at times. He wanted to believe better of them but knew that he could not risk it.  A woody scent rose from the lighter fibrous roots that lay ready to be pounded with the small iron mortar, the bowl waited with a dried red herb, rubbings of sage and a small mound of fennel.  The mixed odors were pungent, sweet, bitter and green.  Dím traced a finger through the fennel unhappily.

“Can you even open that tomb, yourself? Could you put it back, after…” hesitated Bilbo.

“I don’t know,” said Dím without hope. He drew a circle in the fennel, then mounded it back together. “I haven’t had the courage to really think through that part of it yet.”

“Does your uncle ever open that box? Does he hold it, the stone, himself or is he content with it closed?”

Dím looked up at him with surprise. “It is opened now and then, but he cannot seem to bear looking at it for long.  It is more often left locked. But I see where you are leading.  If we were to let him see it…”

“And then replace it with a stone of the same weight…” nodded the hobbit.

“…then it could be put back!” finished Dím with new hope flickering. Then he grimaced. “If I can get the tomb open.”

“If you can find another stone, I can help you open it,” said Bilbo. “And no one need ever know.”

“You can? What about your Companions?” asked Dím with fear.

“No one,” repeated Bilbo. “Need know.”