Stone of Erebor

by Primula

Chapter 21: Planting

Bilbo looked up from where he had been enjoying a light after-breakfast pipe by the fender with his host, wondering for a moment why Glóin was grumbling about 'who would come by the rooms so early in the day.' He had been there long enough to realize his friend was inclined to keep late hours and only awaken when he had to, though.  The elderly dwarf had been getting up and about earlier than he was normally inclined to with a morning-loving hobbit in his care, so it was later for Bilbo than it was for Glóin, so to speak.  Bilbo drew a little on his pipe and carefully formed a single light smoke-ring, watching it float upwards in a thin, wafting oval. 

The dwarf came back from the door and held his hand out to his guest.  A brass button shone up at him from Glóin’s calloused palm. “What is this?” he asked.

“My button!” said Bilbo with what he hoped was real-seeming surprise and relief. “I thought it lost forever!" He tapped out his pipe on the hearth.  "It disappeared sometime when I was in that mess with Dáin's dressing room. Wonderful. Couldn't be better.” 

“You’re still losing buttons?” smiled Glóin. He considered it, holding it up briefly between thumb and forefinger. “Odd that it was sent with no note.”

“Oh, well,” said Bilbo lightly. “I suppose whomever found it was just too modest to draw attention to themselves. Very kind of them to have sent it along, I’ve sorely missed it.”  He took it and held it up to his chest, matching it with its vacant buttonhole.  “See? What’s for luncheon?”

"Luncheon already?" His friend was readily turned away from hobbit fashion concerns to other subjects. "I had hoped we could take you out to see the upper fortifications, where the vegetable gardens have been sown; you have so often spoken of your own gardens we thought you might like it.  When the new towers were built up, we terraced the land between them, you see." He held his hands in the air to illustrate. "The water is drawn up by a most clever wheel and pump.  I admit I'm a bit biased about it, of course; I helped draw up the plans."  He fluffed his beard lightly with pride.

"Gardens? They sound like a marvel indeed. Especially if you had a hand in them."  Bilbo found himself torn between truly wanting to be out among green and growing things again and knowing that Dim would be waiting for him now that the signal had been sent; these rooms were sometimes rather dark and fusty.

But it would be good to have it over and done with.  It had been a long day yesterday, waiting and wondering, watching as the moods of his Companions had so very slowly settled….

-----

It had been late, quite late before he thought they were quite 'all the way' settled. That they all seemed accepting, or at least resigned, of his taking on this part of their mystery himself was a relief - though a fragile one.  By the evening all but Dwalin had been willing to relax a bit and engage in some songs and storytelling until even Dwalin's fretting and glowering found distraction in old ballads of secret, hidden ways, of treasures recovered by epic victories over foreign usurpers and robbers. 

Bilbo had been concerned that of all of them, this last one would not be brought around, and was quite relieved when Dwalin had finally left off stabbing the log in the fire and turned from the hearth to join the others,  singing and playing. The group of them had continued for hours, just like old times, the warm darkness wrapping them in melodies and sounds of their forefathers; all other cares set aside. 

As they had sung, Bilbo had watched them all from where he sat near the hearth, pulling at a pipe now and then, humming along here and there.  The embers of their dinnertime fire reflected in the spark and twinkle of their gems, in their bright eyes glinting as they sang together, and they looked younger in the dim firelight.  It was good to feel their unity again and to feel his own inclusion in it.  Still he was not fooled with the words they gave him promising they would leave him alone to do his part; he knew they would be watching him, both for caution and for curiosity, and he was not assured that they would not try to follow if they saw him slip away….

-----

And now here it was late the following morning and he was already fretting to do that very slipping away.  He didn't want to call attention to himself; they would follow.  Perhaps this garden walk could be a perfect chance for him to get away unobtrusively if he watched for some opportunity.  With care and a bit of luck, his friends might not even notice for a time.  They also could not be questioned as to his whereabouts if any suspicions were raised or anything went wrong, as they honestly would not know. 

He pocketed the loose button and smiled up at Glóin who stood waiting for an answer.  "Gardens would be quite refreshing.  I'm looking forward to it."

A few messengers having been sent down the hallway, they soon met up with Bifur, Dori and Nori along the way, stopping only briefly in the dining hall to gather up some rolls, nuts and small wedges of firm cheese as provisional snacks.  Bombur waved them on their way cheerily, ensconced as he was in his favorite corner with a large helping of coldcut venison and brown loaves stacked before him, fortifications for his own exercise of counting and weighing out a chest of small jewels.  "Be sure you've got enough to see you through, Mr. Baggins.  It's a long walk up the mountainside and you'll work up an appetite.  I know I always did."

"You always work up an appetite," snorted Bifur. "Perhaps you should come with us and work off some of your girth."

Bombur chuckled and reached for a loaf, neatly splitting it open to fill the soft insides with butter and meat. "Be off with you.  Why, just thinking about it makes me weary and I need to keep up my strength!  Oh, and if there's any new lettuce up yet, bring me some, will you?"

Bifur shook his head as he led the way out through the arched doorway. "He's hopeless," he smiled.

---
 
By the time they neared the gardens Bilbo was thinking old Bombur had had the right of it.  His legs ached from climbing and the extra nuts he had stashed in his pockets for a walking-snack were gone.  Indeed, the small sack their luncheon was bobbing along inside of looked better and better, swinging from side to side ahead of him over Nori's shoulder.  He quickened his pace slightly to catch up, intending to ask if they were near and if they weren't how about they stop for a little refreshment when Glóin called for him.

"Mr. Baggins! Come and see. It was worth the climb, was it not?"

Bilbo stepped up beside him, puffing, and found himself looking down into an impressively expansive terraced area that lay between two of the arms of the mountain. "Good gracious me," he breathed. "You were rightfully proud.  What would old Hamfast Gamgee think if he could see such a sight as this."

The terraces, which had appeared quite small to him when he had glimpsed them from the main entrance, now rolled out before him in huge green and tan and chocolate rectangles of new spring plant life, bisected by gracefully formed stone lines and level golden-grey gravel paths that slipped across them at intervals to frame in the giant squares of well-tended earth.

"Do you see the troughs? They bring the water to every plant, the gardeners can direct it from up there." Glóin noted with pride.

"And there's even fountains," Dori said. "We placed them along the way for the gardeners to drink from, and for the ravens.  They help us by keeping the crows and other pests away from the plants. See?"

Bilbo looked in the direction of Dori's sweeping arm and saw two small black forms perched lightly on the edge of one of the fountains, bathing in the trickle that came from the upper tier.  Their size made him realize that the fountains were also larger than he had first surmised. 

"It's all so…big!" he said, feeling at a loss for words.  "Will there be flowers also?"

"Ah, Hobbits and their flowers," smiled Dori.

Glóin cocked a brow at him. "Sadly impractical. We've an entire kingdom to feed. Almost all is given to food crops.  If we have any extra we trade with the Dale-men, though we do grow some edible and medicinal flowers and keep a field further down for the bee-tenders.  We do have plenty of herbs."

Bilbo looked out over the neat, brown rows of earth. He couldn’t imagine having such a garden and not planting at least a few flowers for their beauty's sake. "Don't you miss their brightness? I would think with your love of colors in gems you would want to grow all that you could.  Just to look at, in a vase."

"Why?" asked Nori. "I suppose they are pretty, but they don't last but day or two.  A gem lasts forever." 

"True!" agreed Bifur. "And gold leaves neither tarnish nor wither.  We can capture such fleeting beauty much more perfectly."

"Come," gestured Glóin.  "There's one of our gardeners.  Some of the younger dwarves spend time working here also, when they are learning to forge.  One must first perfect the humbler tools before being given the right to make weapons, after all."

Dori chuckled at this. "Indeed. I still remember my first hoe. What a sad affair; I am surprised it cut so much as a clod."

"I'm surprised your first axe did any better," grinned Nori, receiving a strong elbow to his middle for his cheekiness.

"Hey now," protested Bifur as Nori staggered into him with a *whoof!* "Watch out for the hobbit."

"Yes, you might trip over him," said Bilbo dryly sidestepping. He ran his hand over the low stone wall lining the shallow steps they began descending. "How about we stop, sit a bit and have a bite to eat?  I can see new spring onions coming up just over there. There's so many, you don't think anyone would mind if we pulled up a few?  They'd go nicely with the cheese."

It didn't take much convincing.  He expected all of them were feeling their age, even as he was though he didn't like to admit it; the idea of stopping for a moment was well-received, as was taking Bilbo's appetite as their excuse to rest.  Glancing around to see who was watching Nori nudged Bifur, who furtively took up a few of the small onions for each of them. They felt little guilt about it as they crunched down on the fresh, pungently green taste, eating them tops and all along with the brown rolls and cheese. There were plenty, after all.  The taste of spring.

Bilbo hunted around in the pack for another roll. "Do you think they would mind if a hobbit wanted to take a turn with a trowel?  I didn't realize how much I have missed my old gardens; it would be most pleasant, even if there aren't any flowers. Maybe I could help with some of the herbs."

"How about the bees down below?" asked Bifur, pointing to where two dwarves were walking along in the distance, a newly framed bee-box being toted between them.

"Oh dear me, no," said Bilbo.  "I like them well enough when I am watching one among the blossoms, but I never did take to sticking my hand in a nest of them."

"Remember those bees that Beorn had?" asked Dori. "Now those were big ones."

"I remember them," nodded Bifur.  "Never seen the like again."

"It's no wonder he had so much honey," agreed Nori. "We don’t have any like that, I assure you."  He passed the last wedge of cheese to his smaller companion.

"Nonetheless, I think I'd just prefer plants.  Is there a tool shed?  A shelter for the herbs? Where do I start?"

"You really want to do this?" asked Glóin.

"Why, yes!" persisted Bilbo. "Don't you?"  He finished the cheese in one last big bite and stood up to brush off  crumbs.  "I mean, it's all right if you don't want to.  Maybe one of these young gardener fellows would be willing to take me on for a little while, eh?"

It took a bit of doing to convince them that he was serious and it was not a passing fancy.  They finally took him over to one of the gardeners where he was outfitted with a trowel, no hoe being found that would be quite short enough for him.  A small row was given for him to trowel the weeds out of.  He expressed much enthusiasm for it and set about digging on his knees in the earth.  As he had hoped, his friends stood around for a short time, then conferred in low tones with one another about who would stay with him so the rest could go back inside.  Dori opted to stay, and the others gave him brief farewells, bidding him not dig too deep lest he inadvertently uncover some hidden treasure.

Time passed. Dori wandered up and down the rows.  Bilbo dug out a stubborn old root and hacked apart some large clods trying to make what he had been given last longer. The gardener had obviously thought he would not last long, for the original patch was much too small. He moved on past it to breaking up the earth around some young squash mounds.  Dori took up a hoe and halfheartedly chopped around the ground nearby, but gave it up after a short time.  The shadows grew small as the sun climbed.  Bilbo dug, prying up small stones and tossing them to the side.

"Are you nearly done, Mr. Baggins?" Dori called from where he now impatiently sat upon a rock retaining wall, fiddling with the amethyst clips he wore in the braids of his beard.  

"What? Oh no, of course not!" Bilbo called back, trying to sound more energetic and interested than he really was.  In truth his back was aching terribly, the sun was feeling hot even for spring and he longed for a drink of water.  "Isn't it just marvelous weather for digging?"

Dori did not reply.  He fidgeted a while longer, then finally stood up and began slowly pacing again, absently swinging a hoe in his hands.  Bilbo turned his trowel under a patch of old weeds, yanking at them to get out the brittle roots.  There was a murmuring of voices and shortly thereafter he found a pair of dark purple boots tentatively stepping along the row near his hands. He continued doggedly scrounging in the earth as if it were all he could think of.

"My deepest apologies, indeed I do wish I could stay, but I have errands I need to attend to inside the Mountain," said Dori with a small bow to him.  "I did not give proper thought to your people being tunnelers of hillsides and that digging in the earth this way would be such an entertainment for you.  Please forgive me that I do not join you in it."

"What? Oh, no offense at all. Are you sure you don't want to dig? The dirt breaks up most delightfully." He smiled up at Dori, crumbling a large clod in his hands as if he were fascinated with the texture of it.  "Ah look! I've even found a worm."

Dori gave another bow, not quite looking at the worm that Bilbo cheerfully displayed in his palm. "If you will allow it, I have asked one of the gardeners to tend to anything that you might need.  He will provide you with escort back to the lower gate when you are finished with your… gardening. There you may simply send one of the door-wards to fetch me."

Bilbo gently reburied the worm and reached for another good clod. "If you truly do not wish to join me, that is a very generous thing for you to do, good Dori. I thank you. I truly have not had such a fine day's digging for a long time.  If it isn't an inconvenience to you, I would like to do another row or two.  Maybe more."

Dori smiled and shook his head. "I am sure the workers will be glad of your help. Indeed, they may request that Dáin invite hobbits more often, just to help them with their tilling.  I will see you at luncheon?"

"Unless I get digging so that I forget to eat, yes."

"Forget to eat?" laughed Dori. "Is this even possible?"

"I suppose," Bilbo said, feeding the notion to gain more time. "It's been known to happen with hobbits, when they are digging and tunneling.  Please don’t worry about me, I am more than satisfied here."  He set the trowel aside and enthusiastically dug into the loose soil with his bare hands to illustrate his point.

It worked.  The purple boots moved out of his sight. He continued digging along the row this way for some time longer to be sure Dori was really gone and not just watching him from the ridge.  His shoulders and arms ached, there was far too much dirt rammed up under his fingernails and he was sure he had gotten dirt in his hair when he was acting enthused for Dori.  It itched, and he could not scratch it with both hands covered in more of the same. 

When he felt it might be safe he slowly climbed back to his feet and ambled back towards the greenhouses, stopping to weed here and there along the way to avoid notice. Whichever gardener it was who had been approached did not make himself known; he could only see two from where he was and they were both occupied with their own work, showing no interest in him.   Bilbo reached the nearest greenhouse, a large, low coldframe of sturdy wood.  He casually stepped inside its walls.  There was a bucket of fresh water with a drinking dipper standing just inside, kept in the shade to keep it cool.  He gratefully washed the dust from his throat then splashed some here and there in an attempt to wash up with mixed results.  He wished he had a handkerchief to wipe his face properly and patted for one out of habit.

Reaching into his pocket he found nothing but his loose button. Fingering the warm metal circle he wondered once more why he had given up his old ring.  So much better than a button.  It seemed so long ago right now,  yet he wished he could borrow it back it again, just for a little while;  it would have been useful at a time like this. He pictured the sour visage of his erstwhile relative, Lobelia, and how he had ducked away from her more than once using it.  It was not really a pleasant reflection; he forced the image away and withdrew his hand, making his mind turn to the favor of fonder memories: his own blooming flower garden, old Hamfast's generously crinkled face bobbing among the blossoms as if he were one of them.

He looked around the greenhouse and considered the plants. If he could not hide, perhaps he could at least try to blend in.

Nearby were dozens of young angelica plants, laid out in rows.  They were still young for their variety, but being a tall plant already stood large enough to look nicely vigorous with greenery in their pots.  He leaned down and picked up two of the most leafy ones to carry.  They didn't use angelica much in the Shire, though he had tasted it many times chopped and candied or as a flavoring in ale.  The Dwarves seemed to have a taste for it, using it more like a vegetable.  Once he had tried the crisp stalks when they had been offered to him, but found them unpleasantly astringent on the tongue.  His friends didn’t seem to mind but there was no accounting for Dwarvish tastes.

He mused on this as he toted the plants.  It had always been his experience that someone walking with a purpose while carrying some innocent item in their arms could generally pass without notice or question.  His identity and purpose would be summed up by what he was carrying and little more thought given to it.  After all, who thinks to wonder if the lad carrying a packet of letters is coming from anyplace but the postal office, and going anyplace but where the letters are addressed to?

Carrying the plants, he strode with a firm gait back out of the greenhouse and up the path.  Unchallenged, he climbed the steps up and out of the terraces.  Near the gardens this worked well enough, but the closer he got to the gates the less camouflaging his plants would be.  He clutched them and kept on steadily for lack of any other idea. 

Cresting the ridge he began the long walk down, which went much faster than it had been going up.  The road with the river brightly splashing alongside it soon approached. He paused as if resting so he could watch the gate, waiting until a group of dwarves strode in that direction rapidly as if they were in a hurry.  Perfect.

He stood and began jogging along the path, the plants waving around his face as he went. Their cool weight was seeming heavier by the moment. By the time he reached the gate he was honestly panting with the exertion, trotting right in after them. 

"Hold!" called one of the door-wardens uncertainly.

Bilbo slowed only a little, turning to peer at him through the fronds.  "Sorry," he gasped, "I couldn't keep up with them. I'm trying!"  He waved apologetically, then turned back the way the group of dwarves had gone and trotted off, leaving the baffled door-warden staring in confusion after him.

"Wait for me!" he called out to no-one in particular. "I've got the rest of those plants! Blast you, can't you wait for someone with shorter legs?"  He kept on, waiting to be called back, waiting for some heavy hand to descend upon him and drag him back to the door but it didn't happen.  He crossed into the next set of rooms. Relief gave his feet wings; he strode straight on towards his rendezvous.

Along the way he did receive a handful of odd looks, but kept up the firm, purposeful stride and found no other barriers.  It was laughably easy, really; and he thought it was a good thing he was not a real burglar as the King had worried he was.  The stone rooms and steps gave way to the lower area he had mentally labeled the 'Dwarf-smials' and he slowed to regain his breath, to rest his legs and get a drink  (as well as a refreshing splash to his face) from one of the cold, trickling water basins that were scattered along these hallways, patting himself into something presentable with his handkerchief, which he had belatedly discovered in his other pocket.

The now somewhat droopy angelica plants having served their purpose, he didn't quite know what to do with them. He considered bringing them along to Dím, but had second thoughts about it, not wanting it to be seen as conferring stolen goods however small or innocent seeming.  He finally just left them in one of the halls, next to the water-basin.  Hopefully someone would find them and return them to the gardens above in due time, or eat them.

Reaching the now familiar crossed axes with relief, he trotted down the short hall and had barely begun to knock on the door when it was yanked open and a very nervous Dím all but pulled him inside, shutting the door closed behind him. 

"What took you so long?" he grumbled under his breath.

"I came as soon as I was able. I had to be sure I wasn't being followed first, my friends are very suspicious that I'm up to something, I'm afraid." 

"You're alone?"

"Present company excepted, yes. Are you ready?"

"As much as I can be."

Bilbo followed Dím's gaze to where Mizûl lay sleeping, the spice box by his bedside, one hand lightly touching it.

Dím's voice lowered to a bare whisper. "I swapped it out this morning after he was asleep. The new one is well wrapped, so even if he opens it he should not see anything amiss… at first… I've given him a stronger sleeping draught than usual. The deeper rest should not bring harm."

Bilbo nodded then glanced around a bit anxiously. "Where is it?"

"It's right here. I hope I hid it well?"

With surprise Bilbo saw the woven lunch basket he had only briefly noted on the shelf by the brazier. Open, it held a loaf, a small jam-pot, a withered winter apple and a round cheese, all coddled in brown cloth.  A round cheese of a very familiar size to him.  It appeared that Dím had taken the real Arkenstone and after wrapping it in thick cheesecloth, had gone so far as to partially dip it in thick wax.  In the basket it looked for all the world like a common cheese. 

"A cheese? Cleverly done! Unless there are more hobbits about in this place than myself, no one is likely to pilfer your lunch."

Dím gave a nod. "I am in your debt for the idea. I admit I am still terribly nervous about carrying it in the halls.  The sooner this is over with the better."
 
Bilbo considered the dwarf's wringing hands. "And you are sure you are able to let it go?  You won't be trying to get it back again? No matter what?"

Dím looked down at his hands, then to his uncle's sleeping form. "No. Never again. Not for all the gold of my ancestors."

"Very well then. Let's go."