Stone of Erebor

by Primula

Chapter 22: Returning

With the handle of the heavy lunch basket firmly clasped in Dím's hands, the two of them hesitantly entered the halls.  It was now drawing on well past mid-day into afternoon, and as they slipped along hallways and down steps, Bilbo could smell the late dwarven luncheons that had been cooked here and there, roasting meat and spicy soups wafting past teasingly until he half-wished that the 'cheese' they were carrying really was one. 

From what he could remember, they were nearly to the point where they would be able to turn from the main thoroughfare and he began to relax.  "This isn't so bad now, is it?" he murmured in encouragement.

Dim gave him a half-smile in spite of his nervousness and gestured ahead to a doorway that opened up on their right about a dozen paces down.  "Just there," he said softly. "We can…"
 
A deep voice suddenly interrupted, calling out from somewhere behind.  "Where are you going with that creature?"

Dim and Bilbo both spun around, the dwarf trying to not appear guilty, Bilbo with a mixture of surprise and righteous indignation.  He had no doubt which of them was being referred to.

"Creature?" he spluttered.

Ignoring Bilbo's rejoinder, Ûrd, the Master Jeweler of Dáin's realm strode towards them giving Dim a polite nod. "Not to intrude, of course… Dim, isn't it? Dímûl's son, weren't you? Yes. Well.  I do hope you realize what you are in the company of?  I would not be concerned except seeing as this particular holebit was seeking entrance to my own worktables…"

"Hobbit," corrected Bilbo. "And I was not trying to…"

"… I feel I must at least inquire as to what he is doing away from his approved escort of esteemed Companions." He paused to give Bilbo an unfriendly look then caught Dím's reluctant eyes again and lowered his voice conspiratorially,  as if it made a difference. "There is no telling what some foreigners will do to lay ahold of our treasures, you realize. It would be unwise to allow yourself caught up in it."
 
"I…" Dim faltered.

"Now just a minute.  He was escorting me as a favor by my most esteemed Companions, and with the blessing of your own King," Bilbo said as firmly as he could manage.

"I was," nodded Dim, glad to follow Bilbo's lead. "And I am honored to do that service on their behalf, have no fears for myself or our treasures, Master Ûrd ." In spite of his smooth voice, the basket swung, betraying the trembling of his hands.

Bilbo, who had been wracking his brain for the puffed-up titles he had invented for himself during their last meeting, suddenly inserted himself between the Jeweler and Dim, blocking the basket from his view.

"As the Master Mathom-Wielder of the Shire from Underhill, I was sent in the keeping of your chief jewel-dresser by Dáin himself," he interrupted pompously. "Seeing as you yourself had refused to entertain me earlier, a discourtesy, I might note, that I have kept from the King's ears thus far but may not be inclined to do so a second time in light of these ill words.  I had thought the servants of the King Under the Mountain, much less the Masters of Trades would have more gracious tongues for their august friends." 

"Friends?" The Jewel Master raised his brows.

Dim tried picking up a few of the threads Bilbo was scattering about. "Of course…the people of the Shire are friends with our Kingdom," he nodded.  "And Mr. Baggins is most esteemed even among them.  It is no wonder that the King should want his thoughts upon these matters."

"You are only the jewel-dresser.  I am the Master.  Why was I not asked?"

Bilbo thought fast. "He must have realized how you were occupied already…"

Dim promptly echoed his lead. "The King must realize that the gem sets for Midsummer you have been designing are taking so many of your hours, he would not have wanted to burden you with something so…"

"It was most thoughtful," Bilbo nodded, "Not surprising, seeing as you are in such good standing with the King.  I am sure my thoughts on the matter are only preliminaries to your own much more authoritative ones."

"For what?" asked Ûrd, looking both confused and doubtful.  "Preliminaries?"

"We are on our way to the gemworks," offered Dim.  "Our guest is to give his expert and most learned opinion on the quality of the stones we retrieved from our newer veins, and perhaps…"

"I can provide some guidance in light of my own experiences in other lands," finished Bilbo when Dim hesitated.

The elderly jeweler raised one hand to briefly twist at the point of his beard, suspicion still lurking in his eyes though not as strongly as before. "It would only take less than an hour for a viewing of the open gemworks," he commented. "Why do you carry a meal with you?"

"Hobbits are a noble but hungry folk," said Bilbo.

"So I have been told," Ûrd said dryly.  Dím looked down at Bilbo as if wondering what his diminutive conspirator was talking about.

"It is by the enduring courtesy of my current escort that I am supplied with sustenance, a small provision for our walk to help keep up my strength.  I look forward to a greater meal upon my safe return to my Companions, who are in full support of my services being used to further the wealth of this kingdom."

Ûrd considered this. "If this is what you need for a mere walk, your folk must need to store many provisions to travel."

"Oh yes!" Bilbo replied with a small bow, warming to the subject. "Waggons full.  That's part of why they rarely leave their homes.  They can get positively famished on a short jaunt to the Post.  I have heard tales of certain stronger races - if you take my meaning - gaining good gold in exchange for the lending of their strength in carrying all of the food it takes just to get a family of Hobbits over the mountains."  He hoped this wasn't laying it on too thick, though the thought of it rather tickled his own imagination now that he had it there.

"Now if you will pardon us, we need to be on our way," interjected Dim with another small bow.  "I must have him back to his Companions within the expected time, you understand.  And I am sure you have many other pressing matters to attend to."

"Oh. Yes, I understand. Of course," replied Ûrd.  He didn't look as if he did, but he stepped back and after a moment turned back the direction he had come from.  He glanced back at them as they turned together and walked down the hallway.  Dim marched right past the doorway he had indicated before, so Bilbo went with him.  It was only after several minutes of walking that they slowed and dared a communal glance backwards themselves.  Ûrd was no where in sight.

"Phew," Bilbo said quietly. "Do we double back or is there another way?  Do you think he would hide or try to follow us?"

"We'll have to double back," Dím whispered.  "I don't think he would, but let's stop here a moment to be sure he's really gone.  That was a close one."

"I'll say.  It's not the first time I've met him."

"That was obvious," Dím said wryly, and then suddenly smiled down at him.  "Come on."

Bilbo was tremendously grateful when they finally left behind the upper halls with its suspicious inhabitants and scents of cooking to descend below the living levels.  Dim pushed past the thick, musty hanging he vaguely remembered, the one that kept the chill of the lower halls from the homes just above them, and they entered darker, lesser used streets of this dwarven-city.

The sudden quiet seemed loud to him, the only sounds being the trickling of water into the small wells that dotted the passageways of this mountain, a tiny thread of silver sound in the colder, darkened air. Dím's breathing echoed around the hall, or perhaps it was his own; in unspoken agreement they had both begun to hurry their pace.    Dím paused to light the candle in a tiny iron lantern that Bilbo carried; he had added at the last minute when he realized that his companion might not be bothering with a bit of light, but he very much wanted some.   No delay held them until they reached a branch in the hallway where Dim hesitated a long moment (it seemed much longer to Bilbo than it truly was) and then turned to the left.  The hobbit found even this small hesitation reason enough to mull over the many dark and mysterious ways the two of them could falter or be lost in these halls to either wander on forever or to come out in the middle of Dáin's bedroom.  It was testament to his rather frazzled state of mind that the latter did not seem all that farfetched.

His imagination on musings of this sort was strong enough that it was with great relief that he saw his guide pause to pull on a door that slid along dusty tracks,  leading to a dark hallway with a stillness and a stale feel to it.  He remembered this door, and that boost of certainty held him for perhaps ten paces in peace until his imaginings returned to query what would happen if there were more than one door just like that one, and they had the wrong one.  What if it led to some other set of tombs, and they stumbled upon mourners for some more recently deceased dwarf… or something darker?

"There," said Dim.  He ran his fingers briefly over a single rune carved in the wall beside them, a confirmation that they were very near.  It was the first time he had spoken since they had descended into these darkened paths, and Bilbo, his runaway train of thought broken, literally startled.  His small jump jostled the basket in Dím's hand making both of them reflexively grab at it, hugging it between them as if their very lives depended upon it. 

"Eh…sorry," muttered Bilbo. Dim shrugged in an almost embarrassed way himself, grunted and began walking again, leaving Bilbo to follow along behind him.

So quick and furtive were their steps and so focused on walking quietly that they overshot what they were looking for.  "Wait,” Dim said, peering at the smooth door coming up before them.   He held the tiny lamp up to the carvings on the doorposts. "This can't be right. There are two dwarves entombed here."

"Fili and Kili," nodded Bilbo in sudden understanding.  "Thorin's kin; they saved his life, or tried to.  He died of his wounds after, but they were slain on the battlefield itself, they fell fighting right beside him, shielding him …" He trailed off.

"Were you there with them?"

"No, no;  I am no warrior.  But they were good friends. To tell the truth, I was watching from a hilltop when I was struck senseless.  I'm afraid I missed a good lot of it - not too heroic, was it?  Probably just as well.  Fighting is such an ugly thing to watch or to be in, for all the songs written about it."

"They perished in glorious honor, then," said Dim, reading the runes on the lintel.

"If you count that glory," sighed Bilbo. "It was honorable, anyway. Let's go back."

The smooth doorway to Thorin's tomb was if anything, more elaborately framed than he recalled.  Their single flame made the shadows of the carvings tremble and bob, alternately shadowed and shining with touches of bright metals and gemstones. 

"My uncle opened it before, I cannot and what is more, I do not want to know how to open it, lest temptation take me someday the same way it has taken my kin." Dim said, looking down as his companion.

"I understand," said Bilbo.

Dim set the precious lunch-basket down on the floor and turned his back, covering his eyes firmly. 

"Here, said Bilbo.  He drew off his waistcoat and wrapped it over the hunched dwarf's head, covering his face.  "Just in case," he said. 

"Thank you…" came Dím's muffled voice.

Bilbo stepped up to the doorway, running his hands over the carvings that wound their way up the doorposts and peering up at the ones that adorned the lintel.  In spite of their mutual haste to have it 'over and done with' there was a reverence and stillness about this place, about the carvings themselves that called out to be seen, to be read, to be pondered upon and not merely brushed past as decoration.  Bilbo's fingers slid over the key carving,  the shape of a crown.  He briefly caressed its shape with thought, then suddenly pressed in upon it.  It gave way easier than he had feared.  There was a shifting sound and the door released.

Dim was suddenly beside him again, wordlessly handing back his waistcoat.

As the door opened, Bilbo reached for the basket but it was already back in Dím's nervous hands.  It swung, bumping him as they tentatively went in.  He thought it strange that now that they were finally here and so close to their goal all he could think of was the scent of that apple in the basket, laying there withered, bruised but yet sweet beside the stone.

The tomb sparkled about them, the smooth walls and peaceful symmetry bringing a visual hush to his heart.  He stopped and gazed once more upon the sepulcher in the center of the room with its 'oaken' shield wrought so cleverly in stone.  Off to the side, Dím was lighting one of the elaborate silver lamps from the small lantern they had brought.

"Mizûl made this, my kinsman…" he said softly, running his hands over the silver tracings. "His crafting was so fine. I will never have such skill.  He made that filigree over there also, the one along the wall…"

"I had no idea," said Bilbo without thought.  He knew that for proper manners he really ought to stop and take a proper look at the lamps, or examine that filigree and make an admiring remark or two.  Instead he found his feet taking him up to the stone box in the center, reaching out to almost touch that hard, cold edge where it would open.  All of his thoughts were for Thorin now, being drawn far away from Dím or his kin, or their troubles. 

"I suppose we should open it first," he added, not even aware that he had interrupted Dím's soft monologue about this uncle's other past accomplishments.  The dwarf stopped mid-sentence and after a moment joined him where he stood pushing at the heavy lid of the box, drawing a short prying bar from his belt where he had carried it concealed.

The oaken-colored stone of the great shield shone brown and gold, chocolate and black as they slowly shifted the lid, or rather as Dim slowly shifted it.  Bilbo's felt his own feeble pushes were unlikely help, but as the young dwarf grunted and strained, he shoved too, offering what verbal encouragement he could along with his small strength.  It finally shifted and they paused to catch their breath. Thorin was once more open to their viewing, the lamplight shining on him nearly to his waist. As before, he looked unperturbed, dignified and silent despite all of the unusual activity going on around him.  Somehow it was fitting.

Dim bent and pushed aside the brown cloth within the basket, lifting the heavy, waxen gemstone up in his hands delicately, as if it would shatter from a breath. 

Taking a small cheese-knife from the basket, he paused a moment, then decisively scored the surface.  Cracking the humble wax, the stiffened cheesecloth was slowly pulled away from the silky-smooth stone it had concealed. The inimitable beauty of the Arkenstone shone forth, like pure moonlight stabbing through a break in a cloud-darkened night.  He rubbed away the traces of wax with a forge-roughened thumb, polishing it to a sheen even beyond what was necessary.  A long minute passed, and then another and still he was polishing that mesmerizing beauty.  Bilbo began to be concerned; he edged a little nearer.  Another minute passed.

 "I….I don't think I can do this," said the young dwarf, his voice sounded harsh, as if he had to struggle to force it out.  His eyes remained fixed on the silvery globe in his hands, slowly turning it.  "I…can't."

"Let me," Bilbo said, reaching out.  He understood.  Oh, how he understood.  He moved slowly, tentatively placed one fingertip onto Dím's hand, knowing better than to ever get between a Dwarf and their treasure, even at a time like this. Dím's eyes were half-lidded now, as if in sleep, but there was no somnolescence about that lidded gaze.  He stopped turning the gem, took a deep, shuddering breath, then slowly managed to release his hold, allowing Bilbo to take it. 

Bilbo received its weight, flashing in the small light of the lamp, warm from touch and cool at the same time; soft as mist and solid as steel.  He cupped it in both hands as the dwarf trembled and turned away his face, swiping at his eyes with an impatient hand.

"Perhaps he will accept it back better if it is one of his own Companions who restores it," he said gruffly.    

Bilbo looked up from the glowing gem to the edge of the stone casket and realized he would need his hands to help pull himself up if he was to reach Thorin where he lay.  Glancing back at Dim, he saw the dwarf turned away.  It wouldn't be fair to make him hold it again. 

He looked down at the stone, trying to gauge its size and then tried fitting the Arkenstone into his pocket, but it was too big.  Putting it under his arm almost worked, but the perfect roundness of it made it impossible to hold it there long enough without it threatening to suddenly squirt out.  He took out his pocket-handkerchief and briefly tried making a sling for it, hoping that he could then clutch the bundle in his teeth, but the handkerchief wouldn't quite meet around it. 

Frustrated, he finally had to unceremoniously plop the Stone up over the ledge, hearing it clunk down onto some part of Thorin's armor, and only then remembered the obviously useful basket they had brought with them, wincing at his own forgetfulness.

Hopefully the armor had kept it from, well, making a dent in Thorin. Too late to correct it now.  He reached up and pulled himself higher, balancing on the shallow decorative edge that ran around the circumference of the box.  The stone lay by Thorin's right side, apparently having hit the side of his breastplate before rolling off.  Bilbo was relieved at the lack of damage to both Thorin and the Stone.  He had to reach over the edge and gingerly fish around by Thorin's side to scoop the gem back into his hands, an uncomfortable moment that made him mutter apologies to Thorin, feeling as if he were invading his privacy.

It was considered one last time, the silver fire of the lamplight running along it, setting all of the flecks of moonlight and starlight inside afire.  The Heart of the Mountain.  Thorin had been the one with the dream, the will and the determination to bring life back to this place.  And he had succeeded.  It was fitting that he, also the Heart in his own way should remain its keeper.  This mountain was where both of them had found their beginning, and where both should rest.

He took the stone and, unable to think of a proper Dwarven blessing, inwardly said an Elven one.  He would think about whether that mattered or not later on; for now, it seemed right.  The Arkenstone nestled back into the rounded space between Thorin's withered hands as if it had never left them, and Bilbo finally released the breath he had not realized he was holding.

There it was.  His friend had his treasure; the promises of the Dale, of Bilbo himself, were honorable once more.  He wondered if somehow, someplace outside the world old Thorin even knew whether that gem remained with him.  If anyone would know the difference, it would be Thorin.

He looked back down at his other friend, the one that was yet living.  Dím's chestnut head was bowed down, facing half towards the delicate silver lamp that burned in the alcove, as if he had not the strength to turn all the way away from where that Stone of beauty shone.

"Well, that's done," Bilbo said, taking refuge in being brief and businesslike in the face of the poor dwarf's emotion as well as his own.  He jumped back down to the floor.  "It's over. Come now, help me get this lid back into place."

-----

The way back seemed longer than the going had been, perhaps because both of them were a bit overwrought and weary from interrupted sleep the past days.  They had little reckoning of how much time has passed since they had set out, though Bilbo knew it had been long enough that even his consuming the remaining contents of the lunch basket was not quite enough to stave off hunger.  It had to be nearing supper-time, he thought, and wondered if any of his friends had decided to go hunting for him in spite of their promise not to.  They probably had.

At least it was over and done with now - he could report to them with good news and a fairly clear conscience.  His only concern now was that he would have to talk them into showing mercy towards the elderly smith who lay under Dím's care, he would have to find a way to make them refrain from all of the vengeful things they had spoken of.   Surely they would understand…

They had only just entered the hall that led to Mizûl's rooms, having managed to find their way back without event or trouble, and both of them had been starting to relax when his thoughts were interrupted by an odd clunking sound somewhere ahead, followed by Dím giving a gasp beside him.    Immediately alerted, Bilbo saw there was nothing in front of them, so he spun about to see what might have been behind them, only to almost be knocked off his feet by his companion running for the door at the end of the hall.  He staggered and followed, still not knowing what had happened to cause this sudden panic.

"Uncle!" cried Dím, pushing his way into the darkened rooms. "Uncle…"