Stone of Erebor

by Primula

Chapter 9: Dim Hopes

Completely lost, Bilbo stood for a time, turning uselessly from one doorway to another.  The only indicators were colored stone and a single rune on each keystone.  He considered them, but they were simply single letters and helped him not at all. Why couldn't they just post some regular signs, he grumbled to himself. Something like "this way to the kitchen." I suppose it comes from so rarely having visitors, at least of the non-dwarven variety.

He finally chose one direction that seemed to him to be more the 'right' way than the others, though his sense of direction had been sorely tested. He was hoping that his much-vaunted luck would hold out, but after a depressingly short stretch of clean, wide grey passage it merely led to yet another lobby with yet another intersection of pathways. 

This one had a decorative relief carving dribbling water into a small pool and two large storage urns flanking a bench.  At least he could rest his legs.  He took a mouthful of the cold water and hitched himself up onto the bench where he dangled his toes pensively, unsure what would be the best and least noticeable way to deal with this turn of events. How long would the others wait before they began looking for him?

He did not have long to ponder, for not many minutes had passed when he heard footsteps approaching, moving fairly rapidly.  It was too soon to be one of his own Company. He quickly slid off the bench and positioned himself in the shadow of an urn, watching.  A young dwarf trotted past with purpose, dark beard bouncing on his chest.

He could have shouted for relief at seeing a familiar face. Well, almost. It wasn't that he had been formally introduced, but he did remember this lad.  It was the chestnut bearded one that had waited upon Dáin when he first arrived - and now that he'd seen him more clearly he realized this lad had also been among the party escorting the King to his treasuries just a short space ago.  A royal attendant of some kind then.  What luck!

If I follow him, inconspicuously that is, he should lead me back by Dáin's chambers or the area near them, he thought, and from there I can find my way back to the others....

He slipped out from behind the urn and began silently shadowing his new guide.

It was fortunate for Bilbo that the halls were relatively empty - it was only thrice that he had to scramble for an bend, alcove or decoration to hide around, inside of or behind as he traced the path of the youth.  They went generally upwards, the air seemed slightly fresher and Bilbo's hopes that he might soon find some kind of familiar landmark increased.

His guide came to a wide hall with stout iron-bound wooden doorways standing at intervals along one side.  The dwarf angled over to one of them, and pushed it inward with hardly a pause. There was an exclamation from some other party on the other side of the door.  Bilbo slowed and hesitated.  Near the door was yet another small alcove with its now-familiar water trickling into a basin. Bilbo slid along the wall and ducked into it silently, half-crouching in the shadow.  If there hadn't been the voice of another dwarf, he might have tried to follow.

"Dím! A runner was just here, looking for you. Where have you been?" Bilbo resisted the impulse to crane his neck for a glimpse of the speaker. It was difficult to remember that if he could see them, they most likely could see him. He found himself wishing, not for the first time, that he had his old Ring back if only for a little while.  The speaker had a slightly higher toned voice than he was used to in a dwarf.

"Already? What do they want now? I only just left his Majesty and I haven't even had a chance to get a decent meal..." grumbled the young dwarf in return.

"There's some Men come from the valley and he needs to meet with them. He wants to make a good impression."

"He always does..." muttered Dím. "Here, I need to change my vest. Ach. Maybe my shirt too. Get me something to eat."

"Get it yourself. I've already had to haul your share of the laundering back up those stairs..."

"Ach. Why does he always want me for these things...?"

Bilbo could hear the sound of thumping boots and shuffling of cloth though the open doorway.

"Your own fault for being so skilled at beard-dressing. And you've one of the best eyes for the colors of jewels too."

"True," replied Dím without a trace of modesty. His voice sounded slightly muffled as he pulled a fresh shirt over his head. "But it pays well. More than I can say for your picking away at that ore again. I know you were at it again, I saw the baskets - it'll hardly be worth the smelting fee. You know it's a bad vein."

There was a small clatter and a winter apple shot out the door, bouncing off the far wall and rolling erratically back towards Bilbo, who shrank away from it. 

"Waste of an apple," growled Dím as he came back into view, smoothing his hair and beard with a hand. He glanced around briefly but didn't seem to see it. This was apparently not a concern, as his other hand held two more which he began to eat noisily as he headed off down the corridor again. 

Bilbo's heart beat rapidly at the thought that he might be losing his guide. He gathered up his courage (and the apple)  and tried not to gulp as he made a dash across the open doorway.  The light briefly spilled across him and he glimpsed the back of a stocky dwarf with a thick, fuzzy braid that reached all the way down to the backs of the knees, then he was past. 

Relieved that he had hurdled that obstacle so well, he trotted as quietly as he could after the rapidly departing young Dím. He wondered as he went if it had been a brother or sister he had seen through the doorway. He had heard it was difficult to tell one from another with Dwarves, but he preferred to think it had been a sister if only to feel he had finally seen a Dwarven lass.  He probably would never know...

The next several minutes were quite wracking to Bilbo's nerves.  He was so intent on not losing his young guide while also not being seen that there was little room for any other thought; somehow he had to move forward silently from hiding place to hiding place, timing the distance on every curve of the hallways. He had to be always on the lookout for anyone else coming from ahead or behind, or even to the side.  This extremely focused concentration could be the only reason for the situation he shortly found himself in.

Dím had taken him into a long, narrow hallway that was only partially lit and when he suddenly turned into a doorway on the side, Bilbo automatically followed him.  He barely had time to realize his mistake and dive for the shelter of a rack of clothing before the person he had been following was being beset by other dwarves, all in a hurry. Why, he'd walked right into a roomful!

Low voices were muttering back and forth and additional lamps were being lit by many hands. Bilbo peeked through the line of tunics and robes to see a chamber coming into illumination that was all too obviously royal in appearance.

Oh no, he thought. This looks like a dressing-room...and a rather king-like dressing-room at that!

The intricate hangings on the walls, the furs laid over fresh rushes on the floor...and most of all the wide polished mirror, thick robes and beautifully decorated wood and stone cases all spoke of opulent wealth and the care in presentation made by a dignitary. He crouched down behind the clothing, trying to make himself smaller. He considered trying to slip back out the way he had come, though the (now) brightly lit room would make it difficult...

He edged toward the doorway.  Just as he was about to make a dash for it, there was a collective intaking of breath by all in the chamber and thinking he had been seen,  his heart jumped into his throat.  It was a potent mixture of relief and alarm that washed over him as he realized it wasn't he that they had been made aware of - but that Dáin had entered the room.

Dáin swept in from a doorway at the far end and Bilbo could see a tantalizing glimpse of the room beyond him, the room he so desperately wanted to reach.  It may as well have been on the other side of the mountains for all he could do.  The curtains were pulled over the doorway and a guard took up his stance.  Bilbo looked to the servant's doorway and his hopes sank as he found another guard now stationed there as well.  He pulled back into the clothing and hunkered down in confusion.

The King was distracted and impatient.  Obviously his visit to gloat over his treasuries had been cut short by the arrival of this group of Men and he wasn't in a pleasant mood. He went to the center of the room and sat upon the padded stool that stood there. Wordlessly, the staff of servants began sweeping around him, one kneeling to change his boots for fine, tooled-leather ones, another quickly unlacing his overtunic while a third turned to the rack of clothing that concealed Bilbo.

He tried not to breathe. He found himself closing his eyes, like a child who thinks if they cannot see they cannot be seen.  There was a rustle, and a richly embroidered overtunic was taken up.  He had not been found.  He tentatively cracked his eyes back open and cast about, finding a light robe that had fallen from the rack. He carefully pulled it up over his shoulders in hopes that he might be disguised as a heap of clothing if he were seen.

The young dwarf, Dím, was right in front of the King, carefully yet swiftly combing, twisting and overlapping locks of the royal beard.  A small casket of gems lay open beside him and he reached into it at regular intervals, pulling forth jeweled clasps and a bit of shining, smooth chain, neatly arranging them within the braids that were forming under his clever fingers.  A smoothing with a bit of oil and the job was done.  As the others stepped forward to fasten a belt of rubies around the kingly waist and to drape him with his robes, Dáin looked every inch a Dwarven monarch, his beard as sparkling and gleaming as the rest of him.

One of the servants pulled aside a drapery opposite and went through to the adjacent room. Bilbo glimpsed it again, a tantalizingly near glimpse of the audience chamber he had been on the other side of only the previous day. There was no reaching it now; it seemed as far away as the Shire. And if there truly were a group of Men arriving, it would be in vain for him to even try.  He hoped by laying low, he might remain undiscovered and escape this unlikely prison once the audience was over. Oh, if only he had his ring!  Why had he left it behind?  Why, oh why, had he let Gandalf talk him into that?

There was the announcement from the other room that King Dáin would now address his visitors.  Dáin, glittering and royal, straightened his back and was swept out the doorway with Dím half-stooping, half-walking behind him to keep his robes straight and unfurled.  The curtain dropped back into place but the other servants still waited in the chamber.  Bilbo lay still, in great dismay.  What would he do if they found him? What would his tale be?

His imagination already had run ahead of him, imagining unpleasant things. Found, one burglar, hiding in the King's own dressing room surrounded by chests of jewels and gems.  Dropped, one burglar, over the wall into the valley below.  Probably without his hat or handkerchief. 

No, it didn't look well, not at all.