Stone of Erebor

by Primula

Chapter 24: Footwork

"Where have you been?" Bifur all but pounced on the hobbit as he made his way towards their customary meeting place in Glóin's rooms.  The dwarf even didn't wait for a reply, which was well as Bilbo was not in the mood to talk just yet.  "It's been hours!  When Dori came back without you, Dwalin and the others were carrying on at the poor fellow -  we had to climb all the way back up to those gardens, but then you had disappeared and no one knew where to. We've been searching all over for you…"

"You promised me you wouldn't," pointed out Bilbo wearily.

"Bilbo! There he is. Where did you find him?" Nori exclaimed, trotting over to them the opposite end of the hall they had just entered.

"I didn't. He found himself."

"I took the chance of checking with the Door-wardens," said Nori a bit accusingly. "They told me you came in from the gardens quite a while back with a bunch of plants, and assumed you were with us."

"A bunch of plants?" Bifur queried.

"You found him!" came Dori's voice.  "About time! Where did he wander off to?"

"We don't know," said Bifur.

"Wherever did you go?" asked Nori. "What's this about plants?"

Bilbo kept walking, spared from answering by yet another call to their rapidly growing group. "There they are - and look, they have Mr. Baggins with them!"  Bofur was coming towards them, with Dwalin giving measured paces behind him. 

"Where did you find him, is he well?" asked Bofur as he came up on the group. 

"Well enough," said Dori, peering at him. "Are you well, Mr. Baggins?"

"Quite," Bilbo said. "Just a little tired."

"Tired! I should think so if you've walked even half as much as we have looking for you," exclaimed Bofur. 

"And that after we already climbed all the way up to those blasted gardens," put in Nori.

Dori looked over at his brother. "Did the Door-wardens know then?"

Nori shook his head. "All they knew is he came in with plants."

"Plants?"

"At least he wasn't off wandering the slopes or woods…"

Dwalin gave Nori a sharp look. "We were able to find one person who said he'd been seen in the lower halls, walking with someone… "

"Yes. We just got back from there.  My legs are killing me," grumbled Bofur with a hand to his back.

"Lower halls?" chorused Dori and Nori.

"With someone? Who were you with, Mr. Baggins?" asked Bifur.
 
"No one, apparently," groused Dwalin.  "We never saw him or anyone who would admit to being around him.  Obviously.  A complete waste of an afternoon."

They all began bumping one another as they funneled from the room into the hallway that led to Glóin's, comparing notes about all the places they had searched.  Wrung out, Bilbo allowed himself to be swept along with them.  He felt like he could sleep for a week, provided he could also eat several meals in a row first.

Glóin opened his doors at their hail and was forced to immediately step aside as the lot of them pressed in towards the parlour.  "Baggins, there you are," he called as they pushed past him. "Good to see you're safe at least. Where did you get off to?  Dori, did you find him?"

"He didn't," Nori said, "Though he should have, seeing as he was the one who lost him."

"I did not!" protested Dori.  "I left him in the care of that gardener, and he said he would be along..."

"He was long, all right," said Dwalin, flumping down in one of the chairs.

Dori threw up his hands with frustration. "What was I supposed to do, carry him again, against his will?"

"Leave Dori alone," said Bilbo, sitting down on the stool by the fire. He was so tired.  He rubbed at his temples. "I'm the one responsible.  I contrived to send him away so I could take care of more important things.  If you must rail at someone, go ahead and rail at me, just get me something to eat first or I'll faint dead away and miss most of it."

Glóin closed the door and followed them in. "Miss most of what?"

"Railing," offered Nori.  Dwalin muttered something under his breath.

Bofur sat down without comment and rubbed his legs, but Bifur stooped over the hobbit for a moment and looked at him in concern. "Do you still have any of that rabbit-sage pie left, Glóin?"

"Pie?" said Glóin in mild confusion.  "Oh yes. It's just over there, under that cover. Here, let me help."  He fetched a small silver plate from a stack on a shelf and held it out for Bofur to slip a generous slice onto.  Licking some stray gravy from his finger, Bofur took the plate over to Bilbo.

"My thanks," said Bilbo faintly as he took it.  Ignoring the rumbling conversing going on all around him he set to transferring every bit of that slice from the plate to his empty interior, thereby raising his general level of comfort and goodwill by several notches.  He accepted a second slice appearing on his plate as the first one vanished as the natural progression of events, and finally his head began to feel clearer.  By the time a large mug of amply sweetened dark tea had joined the plate, he was feeling much more himself, though it was at best a rather washed out, tired and old version of himself, he thought. 

He looked up from his plate and mug to find that the rest of the company had also been serving themselves with drinks, though no other no food was in evidence.  Whence had come the leftover rabbit pie?  He was hazy on what time it was, it couldn't be that far past supper-time already, could it?  No wonder he had been faint; no wonder they had begun to worry about him. 

"Did you deal with that forger?" asked Dwalin suddenly, leaning forward in his chair to meet Bilbo's eyes.  His brows were drawn together and his eyes looked hard.  Taken a bit off-balance, Bilbo had to recall what he was even talking about.  With the replacing of the Stone in Thorin's tomb and then everything dealing with poor Mizûl's sad demise he had completely forgotten about that blasted false letter.  It not only felt very long ago, it just didn't seem important anymore - but he knew to the likes of Dwalin and Co., it still would.  Dwarves had very long memories when it came to such things, and this had only been a few days ago. 

He shifted his feet towards the warmth of the fire to gain time. "Well, yes…" he said with sadness. "I would say it has been dealt with. Completely.  And to the satisfaction of even the most.. offended among us."  He trailed off and looked at the fire bleakly.

The Dwarves looked at one another.  This was a turn of mood they had not expected and they weren't sure what to do with it.  Glóin came up behind Dwalin's chair and half extended a hand, as if to hold him back if he should persist. 

"He was… quite old," Bilbo added. He glanced back at them, at their own elderly eyes reflecting the firelight of both hearth and candles.  They were looking at one another uncertainly.

"What happened to… him?" Dori finally asked, his voice low and hesitant.

"He's dead," said Bilbo with flat finality.  He looked back at the flames.  Perhaps there was something of the lingering guilt he felt down inside, knowing that it had been his own urging that had taken the old smith's treasure from his hands, brought on that fatal shock.  Whatever it was, it gave the gathered Company pause.

"You… killed him?" asked Bofur. 

Even as it was voiced there was some uncomfortable, muted near laughter among them,  it was ludicrous, the idea that their gentle Hobbit would murder anyone, much less a Dwarf… wasn't it?  Then again, they had seen him fight the Spiders, walk down to face a dragon alone… He wouldn't… would he?

Bilbo did not move, or answer.  Dwalin drew a noisy breath of exasperation. "Is that all you have to tell us then?  That the forger, whomever he was, is dead?  And we are supposed to just accept that?  What if you are lying, what if you let him go to keep us from avenging our honor?  Hiding him? You were very vocal that we not do so earlier…"

Glóin's hand came down on Dwalin's shoulder, hard enough to make him grunt. "Enough, Dwalin.  I believe him."   The others nodded gravely, assenting.

"He wouldn't," nodded Bofur.

Glóin gestured. "Look at him.  We must hold it as avenged, at least for now, until we know the tale.  I am sure after he's had a chance to rest, Mr. Baggins will tell us more…"

"But what about the Arkenstone?" asked Bifur as Dwalin reluctantly subsided. "I am willing to leave this other mystery until the morrow if I must, but what about the stone?  Was it found, in truth?"

"Yes, was it?" asked the others, stirred to sudden movement again, they overlapped in their impatience. "Did you find it?"  "Where is it now?"

Bilbo turned back to them again.  His head was feeling hazy and slightly disconnected from the rest of him so he had to concentrate on his words, what to say, how much to say. "The Arkenstone is unharmed - smooth and as lovely as ever," he said.  This brought a sigh of relief and remembrance from all of them, Bilbo included.  "Thorin holds it clasped to his chest as he desired it would be."  There was a confusion of murmuring.

"How can you be sure of this?" asked Nori.

"I placed it back into his hands myself," said Bilbo, deciding it would not hurt to add a couple details just to keep them busy.  "Though I almost got the wrong tomb, in which case it would have been Fili and Kili who had it.  As there was only one dwarf there, I can assure you it was Thorin."

"You opened the tomb? How?" asked Dwalin suspiciously.  The others murmured around him.

"I had help from a dwarf.  You are not the only ones who wished to right this wrong."  He turned toward Dwalin and almost toppled off the stool as his fatigue caught up with him again.  Bofur put out a hand to steady him.

"What do you mean by that?" persisted Dwalin.

"He's tired," Bofur pointed out and waved a hand at the him to quiet him.

"Why is everyone always telling me to be quiet?" grumbled the dwarf.  "You yourselves were saying…"

"Tomorrow morning is soon enough," said Glóin firmly.  "Yes, we did want to know and we will know, but I would not do so with our friend falling into the fire while he tells it. Come, Mr. Baggins.  I will see to it that you are not disturbed until morning."

"After breakfast," mumbled Bilbo, staggering to his feet. "Toast. And tea."

They all smiled at that, even Dwalin. "And a pipe, if you wish," that individual contributed as he left the room under Glóin's guidance.   They fell to talking with one another, a rumbling murmur that Bilbo could still hear as he went to his own chamber, halfway undressed and clambered up into the bed.  He drifted off quickly, spinning into a deep velvet slumber in which he fleetingly dreamed he himself lay in state, a cheese clasped in his hands over his chest.

----

Bilbo stood, puffing at his second pipe, and watched as Bombur demonstrated to him his trick of throwing nut-shells up in the air so that they landed inside a silver chalice on the mantle above and behind his head.  He hadn't missed yet, in spite of Bifur and Bofur both attempting to distract him at key moments.  Their laughter and good-natured jibing was a relief after a long morning of questions and answers.

The morning had passed quickly at first, seeing as he started late and supped long, but the time he had spent in that somewhat grueling session with his friends had crawled by.  Their questions had been many and in spite of the sweetmeats that they had brought to fortify him into talking longer, he was grateful that it was over and pleased enough with the results.  He supposed it had been a success inasmuch as he could measure such a thing; some of the dwarves had gone off now, he assumed to double-check his tale regarding Mizûl's demise and the presence of the Arkenstone in Thorin's withered hands.  If they had been hobbits, he might have been upset by this implied questioning of his trustworthiness, but with dwarves it was expected - they never took someone's word for it if they could check up on it themselves. 

A walnut shell bounced off the lip of the chalice and clattered down to the floor where Bofur snatched it up triumphantly.  "Aha!"

"Aha yourself," chuckled Bombur in good humor. "I must have filled that cup so full no more will fit."

"Oh, you think so do you?" Bofur said, launching the wayward shell into the air himself. It tinked into the chalice with the rest.  "Plenty of room I think.  My turn again."

Bilbo smiled and helped himself to some of the pile of nuts Bifur, Bofur and Bombur had been cracking before they'd abandoned their task for flicking the shells at one another, which had led to this tossing contest.

"You missed again, Bofur," called Bombur.  "Admit it, we are better at this than you."

"Never!" said Bofur cheerfully. "It was only a wayward breeze what moved the shell."

"Let our hobbit do it again," suggested Bifur.

"Yes, come Mr. Baggins. Your aim has yet to go amiss."

"Only if I get to play with nuts rather than shells this time.  The prize must be worth the effort."

"Done! Bofur, bring that sack of walnuts. The other one too.  As many as you can toss into that…hm, how about that chest over there?  Bifur, open that chest.  Used to have winter wrappings in it, but we're still using them all it's been so chill.  That's good.  Think you can hit that from this far away, Mr. Baggins?"

"Easily," said Bilbo.  He chose a single walnut and weighted in briefly in his hand.  In a single movement, he whipped it off and there was an echo of a clatter as it hit the open lid of the chest, falling down into the interior with a small thunk.

"Excellent, good fellow!" said Bombur.

"How about trying to hit that knothole in the lid, the one about a third down?" asked Bifur with a glint in his eye.

Bilbo picked up another walnut, weighed it and lobbed it. 

"Spot on!" cried Bifur.  "Do it again.  But step back another three paces first."

It was some time later when the others came back, satisfied as much as they could be under the circumstances.  The old smith was dead, they confirmed, and yes, Thorin held his treasure safely in his hands. 

They gathered around the fire as Dwalin read through the a brief official missive he had drawn up for all of them to sign.

"…With this confirmation, we will formally concur with your request," said Dwalin a bit stiffly.  "All revenge for this matter shall be regarded as fulfilled by the death of the perpetrator, and all dishonor bound back to that generation of the family line.  No further matters will be pursued upon his relations or upon your own."

"A clean plate?" asked Bilbo. "No more jam in the jar?"

"Yes, as your people might say," bowed Dwalin.  "No more."  Glóin, Nori and Dori bowed with him, having also had their family lines impugned in that ill-fated forgery.  "And now that that is done, may I inquire of one more thing?"

"What's that?" asked Bilbo with some trepidation.

"Why were you sitting in a blanket chest full of nuts?"