Stone of Erebor

by Primula

Chapter 20: Circling

I.

“How soon can you find a matching stone for the box?” asked Bilbo in a whisper. “The sooner we can get this done, the better for all.”

“Or nearly all,” nodded Dím, following Bilbo’s glance back at his sleeping uncle. He paused in thought and leaned closer, speaking so softly Bilbo had to strain to understand him. “It must be exactly the same in both weight and size or he will realize something is amiss.”

“Do you have something that will work?”

He hesitated, running his hands over his knees and didn't reply. 

“Or can you get something…”

Dím grimaced slightly then gave a decisive nod of his head. “I’ll try my best.”

“That will have to suffice,” whispered Bilbo.

"But how will I disguise it, once it is out of its box?"

The hobbit considered. "Make it look like something everyday. That spice box was quite a stroke of inspiration, really.  Maybe something round, like a cheese."

"A cheese?" Dím gave him an odd look. "To take something so valuable and make it into a cheese…how do you think of such things?"

"Well, I suppose to my people cheese is valuable," Bilbo shrugged. He looked around the darkened room out of habit searching for a mantle clock. He didn't see one.  “Now, it’s getting quite late I expect.  So late that it is getting early and I’ll be missed if I’m gone much longer.” 

“You need to go,” Dím agreed. “The King will be returning late this morning and I must be there to help minister to him.  I’ll get what I can done tonight, while there are still a few hours.”

“Don’t you need to sleep? Oh, nevermind. You’re young.  I used to do that too, but now it just makes me yawn until I feel my head will topple right off." He rubbed at his eyes.  "The King has you helping him quite a lot, doesn’t he?”

“Yes,” Dím said seriously. “And it is an honor.  I respect him greatly, and am grateful that I have been given the position I have… I just hope I’ll be able to keep it.”

“You still don’t trust me, do you? Of course you’ll be able to keep it. We’ll manage this.”

“Will we? I may only hope…” The dwarf tipped his mug up and drained the last of the tea.

Bilbo tried to turn him away from his worries. “How did you get to be in that position anyway?  How were you chosen for it?”

The dwarf looked thoughtful and a bit sad. “I was an assistant for my uncle when I was younger, in happier days.  My father was a miner of gems, his brother the one who made the filigrees to hold them.  What fine and beautiful works they made together…. Alas, nearly all was sold or traded long ago so I cannot even show them to you.  Aftrer my father was gone, I was the one who helped select the gemstones to be shaped, what shapes they needed to be and how many, for my uncle’s settings. With time I learned to arrange them also, on vases, chests and lamps, then on clothing, belts and even beards.”

He paused.  Bilbo nudged him to continue. “And the King liked them?”

Dím looked up at him from the empty mug he had been staring into. “Yes. Yes, we gained his notice. My family has… had…. honor and were well spoken of as craftsmen…”  He trailed off.  There was a silence, with only the soft wheezing breath of Mizûl in the darkness.

“Well,” said Bilbo softly, as he stood up and carefully sett his cup down. “I need to be off.   And you need to send me some sort of signal to let me know when you’ve gotten the…” He glanced over at the sleeper again. “ The…it ready, so I can try to get away to meet you.  What would work?” He tapped his chin, thinking. “I’m afraid my Companions are a little unsure about you right now.  An innocent signal…. Maybe if you were simply to send back something I had mislaid? To Glóin’s chambers?”

“Something you’d mislaid?” said Dím, confused.

“Something I’d lost. Maybe in the King’s dressing room.”

“But you didn’t lose anything,” Dím insisted.

“Aha, but maybe I did… Besides my pride, I mean.  Maybe I lost...”  He glanced around for something sharp and lifted a small trimming knife from the supplies on the sideboard.  With it, he snicked off one of his beloved buttons and handed it to the bemused dwarf. “…lost this.”

Dím weighed the button in his hand. “It’s brass.”

“Yes. Not gold, but I promise you that is something I would want returned and my friends will know it.  Don’t bring it yourself, just send someone along with it.  And don’t really lose it, please!”

“I won’t,” he promised, turning the small circle over in his hands again. He considered it closely then tucked it firmly into one of his own pockets. 


----

Bilbo awoke to the sound of low voices talking outside the sleeping chamber: Glóin’s voice, and Gimli’s perhaps.  He squinted up towards the window; it was barely dawn.  Slowly sitting up, he scrubbed his hands over his face and waited for his sleep-fogged thoughts to solidify.  Oh yes.  It had been very, very late before he had managed to creep in to his bed, and he did not even quite remember his head reaching the pillow.  He had never even changed to his bedclothes…  He looked down at his rumpled condition and tried to smooth out the worst of the wrinkles, both from the clothing and from himself. He couldn’t have slept above three hours.  He yawned widely, trying to stifle it with a palm.

No use. The curtain was nudged back and part of a white beard, a nose and a single bright eye peered in at him. The curtain pulled further back and the rest of Glóin appeared.

“You’re awake early.”

Bilbo rubbed at gritty eyes. “I feel as if I were up rather late…”

“I didn’t sleep well either,” nodded Glóin.  “We are all troubled by these events, I deem.”

“Oh yes. Tossing and turning,” agreed Bilbo, slipping down from the bed.  He ran a hand over his rumpled shirt self-consciously. “Bless me, if I didn’t go and fall asleep still dressed.”

Glóin didn’t seem to notice, continuing his own thoughts. “Dwalin should be here soon and we would like your counsel as well, if you will join us?”

“Oh, of course. Will there be…”

“Breakfast?” The dwarf smiled. “Yes indeed. Dwalin said you wouldn’t leave your bed otherwise.” 

Bilbo put his fists to his hips. “I was going to ask if any of the others would be there. Did you really think I wouldn’t come unless you fed me?” He raised his eyebrows self-righteously and waited for an answer.

Glóin’s smile just broadened. “Of course! I’m too old for you to be fooling me anymore. You wanted to know whether there would be cakes, you may as well admit it.”

“Honey? Or nut?”

“Both. And tea besides.”


II.


Dwalin was picking at the small golden mound of eggs that lay on his plate.  Across from him, Bilbo reached for the serving spoon to add another mound of eggs to his own and looked around for the promised honey cakes.  Glóin pulled a piece of bread off a toasting fork and waved it in the air to cool it while absently passing them across the table with his other hand before Bilbo even asked.  The hobbit had thus far managed to hold his tongue as the other two had hashed and rehashed the situation regarding the apparently forged letter and their unsuccessful attempt to confront the forger.

“If,” Dwalin said to his eggs. “If we could somehow get Mizûl to speak sensibly, if only for a while. He must know something …”

“Do you think that’s what drove him to madness?” asked Glóin pensively.  Bilbo looked up from his own eggs momentarily startled at this near miss with the truth.

“Knowing he’d committed forgery?” Dwalin said. He lifted a forkful of eggs to his mouth. “Umhm.”  He swallowed and took a sip of tea.  “That or knowing his own kin had?”

Glóin shook his head. “I don’t think the lad was a part of it.  At least not knowingly. What I fear is that the stone is lost to us, hidden away or carried away, and the only one who knows something of its fate is likewise being carried away from us by age.”

Dwalin pushed his plate to the side, half-eaten. “There is where we differ. I do think that lad knows something, even if it is only as a witness to his uncle’s doddering confessions.”

“But that is a family matter. We cannot ask that he reveal such things.” Glóin picked up the butter knife and rather forcefully applied it to his toast.

“Can’t we? In this case I think it concerns us also, very closely. We need to visit him again, as soon as possible.  Mizûl, I mean. Or summon him to us perhaps… I would hear what his ravings reveal.”

“We have no right!” Glóin returned, waving the butter knife for emphasis.  “If it were myself, would you have Gimli forced to reveal my secrets to some stranger of another line? Or yours? That is what you are proposing!”

“This is the Arkenstone!

“I know it’s the Arkenstone! It’s just…”

Dwalin shook his head impatiently. “We need to talk to the others.  We need to have this forger and his nephew brought here, where we are the ones in control.  Both of them.  Bring them where we can all see and hear. We cannot risk the Arkenstone being lost to us; too many of our great treasures have already gone that way.”

“He seemed frail… but…” Glóin began with waning conviction.

“If the lad could get it out of him then, make him tell where he’s hidden it,” Dwalin continued. “We could act upon it.”

Goaded by curiosity, Bilbo spoke up. “What happens to treasures that are left behind? That is, buried or hidden away?  Surely there are times when someone is lost in battle or other misfortune waylays them and they have no one to tell?”

Glóin and Dwalin both shook their heads regretfully.  “Then they are simply lost,” Glóin answered. “Though every once in a long while they may be found again, by later mining or delving where they lay, by chance discovery.  When Dwarves hide something it is not easily found.”

Or so you think, thought Bilbo, reflecting on how ill-hid the stone had been in its spice box. 

Glóin crunched his toast and brushed the crumbs away as he chewed. “There have been times recorded in our history when it happened far too often. It is grievous how many works of beauty we once knew have been lost to us this way.  Fine tools and weapons also.  Still, what can we do?  No one could be expected to have to give up their secrets if they have no wish to.  Some, maybe even most, would sooner die than tell such a thing.”

"Die?" Bilbo blinked at him. It was not all that hard to believe though it sounded harsh when spoken. "And yet you would try to take his secrets from him?"

Dwalin frowned. "Do not think we are being cruel, Mr. Baggins.  We do not wish to cause hardship or grief for the old smith or his kin…"

"Still," Bilbo replied carefully, "only yesterday you said you wanted to break his fingers with his own tools, if I recall rightly, and other horrid things besides. Granted you did not know whom it was you were thinking of at the time but I hope you understand why I find your claim of clemency a bit hard to believe just now. "

Dwalin came to his feet so quickly his chair thumped against the wall behind him, narrowly missing the hearth. He stabbed a finger at the startled hobbit. "You cannot understand what this means to us, to all of us!" he announced. "It must be done.  The sooner the better."

"Dwalin…" Glóin stood also, reaching out a hand.

"Glóin, you know how…"

Bilbo slid off the chair to the floor intending to look up at them from across the table in a steadfast and authoritative manner. At least that was what he had meant, but for his unaccountable catching on the leg of the chair and his undignified stumble to his knees on the floor.  There was abrupt silence as the two dwarves saw their companion bob up, tilt and suddenly disappear with a thump.  

His eyes, topped by his forehead and curly grey hair popped back up.  There was a pause.

Dwalin cleared his throat. "Are you all right, Mr. Baggins?"

Bilbo climbed to his feet, brushing at his knees.  "Except for my dignity, yes.  Quite. How about… we all sit back down?" 

Glóin gave Dwalin a long look and silently handed him his chair before settling back into his own.

"We should be sending for him later this day, is that much agreed?" Dawlin continued in a more subdued manner. "The sooner the better."

"I think we need to let the others have their say first, but yes," Glóin turned to Bilbo. "I promise you, we are a just people. No punishment shall be meted out until we are certain of his forgery."

"You sound certain of it already."

"Well, who else could it be?" demanded Dwalin impatiently. "For the sake of my brother and for Thorin himself we must see justice served!"

"Give me some time," said Bilbo.

"What?" They both looked at him, confused.

"Give me some time, I say," Bilbo repeated slow and clear. "I think I know what has happened."

"What happened? demanded Dwalin.  "To what? The stone, the letter?" cried Glóin at the same time.

"Both with the stone and the letter," he continued in carefully measured tones.  He held up a hand to stop their exclamations.  "I need you to trust me. Trust me, and hold off on your justice and punishments until I can see this through."

"See what through?" they asked. "Where is it? Did you see it?"

"No, I haven't seen it, but…"

"How did you find it? Or have you?"  "When? Why didn't you tell us right away?"

"By chance.  Recently. Because…"

"You should have told us!"  "You knew something and…"

"Yes. I did.  I was afraid you would…"

"And you ask us to trust you?" "Are you hiding it, then?"

"What? No! I don't have it.  But I hope I can…"

"You are a burglar, aren't you?"  "Where is it? Who has it? Is it hidden?"

"No!  I can't say yet. Yes!  Now calm down!"

"Can't say yet? Why not?" "Calm down?!"

"What's happening here?" asked a new voice. 

They turned to find Bofur looking as if he weren't sure whether he should enter the room or not.  Nori stood behind him, eyebrows raised high on furrowed brow.

"Our burglar is turning against us!" said Dwalin bitterly. "Ask him what he found and didn't tell us of." he pointed an accusing finger at Bilbo.  "Ask him! He hides it from us!"

"I am not…!" began Bilbo, drowned out by Glóin's own correction as he all but forced Dwalin down into his chair. 

"He is not turning against us! Rein in your temper before you make false accusations yourself, son of Fundin!"

Bofur looked at them blankly. "What was hidden?"  Nori turned to Bifur who had come in behind them and said something in a low voice.

Dwalin glowered at Glóin but did not try to rise.  Glóin turned to the others. "It seems our good Mr. Baggins believes he has found both our forger and the stone… though he will not tell us whom or where."

Amid the exclamations that came from the others Bilbo drew a deep breath trying to find some patience.  He had been afraid of exactly this sort of reaction, plus he found himself trembling slightly from that moment of anger that Dwalin had directed so venomously towards him.  He knew his friend would regret those words once he calmed, but it was hard to face anyone when they were in such a mood, much less a powerful Dwarf who he thought had only been kept from impetuously throttling him by the width of the table between them.  He placed his hands on the edge of the table to steady himself.

"If you'll all just listen to me…" he started.

This was interrupted by a renewed hubbub of talking as Dori tentatively entered and the others all tried to bring him up to date on their hobbit's apparent surprising and secretive doings.

"As I was saying…" he tried again.

"Listen!" "What did he say?"  "He's talking, be quiet!" "He found it?!'

"All of you be quiet!" Bifur said loudly. "I want to hear."

A welcome silence settled in, except for a low muttering that came from Dwalin's direction where he was still trying to speak to Glóin about it, though Glóin was no longer listening.

"If you'll just bear me out, all will become clear in time." Bilbo began.  "I have two purposes in why I've chosen to proceed as I am proceeding.  First of all, yes I think I know what happened with that confounded letter. Wait! Wait.  As I said, all in due time.  Secondly, yes I think, and I emphasize that I think I know what has happened with the Arkenstone as well.  Stop.  Stop… I can see you are all just bursting to ask about it, but I must ask something terribly difficult of all of you.  I  must ask you to give me some time."

"Time?" asked Dori from the rear.

"Yes.  I do not want your pronouncements, judgments or punishments being brought into this matter, at least not yet.  Preferably not at all, but I realize that is a decision that will ultimately be up to you among your own kind.  I have reason to believe it would be best to set aside those aspects here, and just keep to one thing: that our promise to Thorin Oakenshield would be kept."   Here he had to hold up his hands and again shush them as they all drew breath.  He was feeling more confident by the minute and much more in control.

"I need you to trust me, as you always have.  When have I ever let you down or deceived you?  Wait, strike that.  When have I ever done so recently?"

This brought slight smiles.

"In truth, I truly do need you to trust me.  I will do my utmost to see this through, for the honor of my own family line as well as for the Company."

"You speak of the honor of the Company, yet you will not confide in us," said Dwalin.

"Not yet."

"Then you intend to keep this thief and forger hidden from justice?"

"I want your word not to judge until all is known. Will you grant me that much?"  They frowned, brows furrowed.  He could see more than one of them drawing breath to speak.  He planted his feet firmly and faced them with all the serious authority  a small hobbit could muster among dwarves. "By the honor of my line, of yours, by the honor of Thorin's line and even of the Men of Dale I ask this."

"The Dale-men?" spluttered Dwalin.

"Bard himself was the one who spoke that promise," Bilbo reminded him. "Even Gandalf himself witnessed it.  If you do not deal with this honorably you can be sure some word of it would reach him one day."

"Gandalf?" said Glóin, perplexed at the wizard's name being added to the stew.

"How would it ever reach him?" Bofur asked. "Not that we're saying it's a bluff, of course," he hastily added.

“I’ll find him  and tell him myself, if that’s what it takes to keep your honor on the level." Bilbo held his hands out to them all. "If ever I truly knew you or if ever our friendship was anything more than happenstance, listen to me in this.  I will take care of it.” 

There was a long pause.

"And you will let us know about it as soon as possible?" asked Glóin.

"You will ask for help if you need it?" asked Dori.

"You dare to call on a wizard to answer?" asked Dwalin.

 Bilbo smiled slightly at Dwalin. "I will not need to, for all of you are honorable and patient and trusting, of course.  I truly never meant for this to turn into such a difficult pass. Will you aid me and not thwart me, then?"

"What do you need to do?" asked Nori.

"Wait, mostly," Bilbo said, grateful to turn to a gentler face than Dwalin's.  "And have you not worrying or searching for me if I am missing for a brief time!   Of course, if I'm gone more than a couple days please do come find me -  In that case I probably would be lost."

They all began talking again, but now it was low and between one another.  

Dori and Nori had made their way over to Dwalin and aside from a brief somewhat heated exchange in that corner, the consensus was soon agreed upon.  Bilbo had their respect and (grudging, temporary) trust, at least for a time.   It was not wholehearted or cheerily given, but still it was given and for that he was grateful.  He had feared he would have to be far more underhanded or secretive about all of it. They were good fellows really, all of them.  Even grumpy old Dwalin. 

Now, he thought as he reached for his lukewarm tea, now his waiting began.