11. With Dwarf and Hobbit, Elves and Men
"...bad business, Bilbo. A bad business! To find that after all even the last of the Seven has fallen into the hands of the Enemy - and as for this last Ring; but a trifle that Sauron fancies, indeed! Pah! And we are to send it to the fire?..."
The guttural accents of the Common Speech carrying indignantly through the half-open door told Rowanna, even as she raised her hand to knock, that Bilbo was not alone in his room; and indeed, through the gap in the doorway she caught a glimpse of a long white beard. The Dwarf's talk of rings started curiosity pricking at the back of her mind, and the thought of interrupting him made her faintly nervous. However, since Bilbo had had no time for lessons since the great Council several days ago, and Rowanna had only passed by on her way from the stables to ask whether she should come to the library that afternoon, she took a deep breath and rapped firmly at the door.
"Come in!" the Hobbit responded cheerily. "Ah! How splendid to see you, my dear - come in, come in, and have a seat. Look, you are just in time for elevenses - now, don't think of refusing," as Rowanna hastily began to demur, "I know how hungry you always are after a morning mucking out!"
Indeed, as Rowanna now saw, Bilbo's small tea-table was groaning with trays of cakes and biscuits; a litter of crumbs adorned the Hobbit's own plate, and in the centre of the table stood a steaming pot from which the most extraordinary smell was emanating, rich and bitter both at once, making her think of burnt earth and baking sun. Anxious as she was not to intrude, she felt her mouth beginning to water.
"I can't stay, Bilbo - I only wished to ask you about this afternoon's lesson - " Bilbo, however, was now launched upon the full round of formal courtesies, and not to be gainsaid.
"Rowanna, you have not yet been introduced to any of our guests from Erebor, have you? - allow me to present my very old friend Glóin son of Gróin, of the Lonely Mountain far in the East, and Glóin's son Gimli. My friends; the lady Rowanna of Rohan, who is a distant kinswoman of Master Elrond's through the mortal line, and has the good - or ill! fortune to be at present a pupil of mine..."
Had those bushy white eyebrows shot up for the merest moment? Impossible to say, Rowanna realised with a flash of amusement, given the profusion of beard and brow and braided hair which covered most of the Dwarf's face. Glóin levered himself to his feet with a little difficulty - he had taken one of the hobbit-sized chairs, Rowanna observed; presumably the seats Bilbo kept for Elven friends were uncomfortably high for this guest. Nonetheless, as Glóin got up she felt a little intimidated by the sense of sheer, craggy mass he brought to bear even as she noted that he came not much higher than her elbow. Glóin's son had remained in his seat as though truly turned to stone; the beginning of a low rumble from the older Dwarf brought him, too, scrambling hastily to his feet.
"It is an honour, Madam," Glóin announced, "to be acquainted with any friend of my esteemed companion Bilbo; my son Gimli and I are at your service and your family's."
"And I at yours, Master Glóin," responded Rowanna, relieved that she at least knew by now the proper form for such an exchange; she inclined her head somewhat hastily, for there was something in the Dwarf's flinty expression which made her distinctly uncomfortable. Does he guess that I heard what he was saying about Rings? she wondered, hastily composing herself while Bilbo, not appearing to notice anything amiss, pulled out a chair for her and began to pile slices of cake on to a plate.
To mask her confusion, she busied herself with elevenses in silence for a few moments, content to listen as Bilbo and Glóin discussed the doings of the Dwarves far in the East. She had by now realised that the Lonely Mountain Bilbo spoke of was the very same one which had featured in his adventures with the dragon of long ago, and indeed that the formidable white-bearded dwarf seated across from her must be the Glóin who had turned up on Bilbo's doorstep for the famous tea-party. Another old tale brought to life here in Rivendell! she mused. And yet... from the way Bilbo told that story, he and Glóin were both in their prime when they travelled all the way from the Shire to the Mountain, and I thought dwarves were longer-lived than Men and Hobbits both. But Glóin looks far older than Bilbo...
"How many years would it be now, Bilbo, since last you journeyed to Dale?" Glóin queried.
"Oh, a fair few - I lose track of time here, old friend, as well you know," Bilbo admitted. "A dozen or more, I dare say. Your folk were just completing the third hall for King Brand, and there was some tremendous to-do or other going on about the stonework and whether or not the pillars, all carved like great oaks, would be strong enough to take the weight of the roof..."
"I remember!" Laughter began somewhere deep in Glóin's solid form and rose, like the very earth trembling, slowly to the surface. "Not hold indeed! Of course they held. We had worked pillars twice the height of those and more in King Dáin's great hall under the Mountain, and the rock we used in Dale was not so different. How I loved watching those carvings growing, Bilbo, leaf and branch slowly spreading out across the ceilings! And were the fountains finished then? Dár and his water-workers were puzzling, about that time, over how to bring water to the top end of the town in enough quantity to show them off as he wished, if memory serves me..."
"No, they weren't done. Dár was very insistent that he would crack the problem, though, and that I should come back one day to see his works soaring in all their glory into Dale's summer skies!" Bilbo chuckled.
"And so you should, my friend," Glóin prodded gently. "Come, what say you, another journey to the Long Lake?"
"Ah, Glóin, my journeying days are behind me, I fear," Bilbo sighed, looking a little wistful. And suddenly, Rowanna realised with a small shiver, he seems much, much older... What is it that troubles him?...
Unable to fathom it, she turned to try to engage the younger Dwarf, Gimli, in conversation, asking about their journey from the East and the care of their ponies. She quickly realised, however, that Glóin's son was distinctly uncomfortable; perhaps he found her Westron as difficult as she did his gruff accents, for while his answers were polite enough they stretched no further than two or three words, and the silences following each became longer and more strained. But he understands Bilbo well enough, Rowanna thought, puzzled. Why should I make him so ill-at-ease?
A moment later, as Gimli managed another strained "No - Madam..." while staring fixedly at his feet, understanding broke in on her in a mortified wave. Something Bilbo had told her about the ways of Glóin's people leapt to mind; Dwarf-women, who were said to be few in number and almost revered by their people, rarely ventured abroad and were jealously protected by their menfolk. Clearly a respectable Dwarf's idea of a lady does not encompass straw in the hair or smelling of horse - and certainly not barging in on an all-male gathering taking tea! she realised with an inward groan. So yet again I am thought at least eccentric, if not worse...
Casting around urgently for escape, she dived with relief into a lull in Bilbo and Glóin's discussion, and asked about the extraordinary smell emanating from the pot on the table. With a chuckle, the Hobbit reached for a cup and poured a little of a steaming liquid whose colour proved as earthy as its smell.
"Coffee, my dear! made from beans grown in the far South of Middle-earth; Glóin very kindly brought it for me. It was one of my regular treats back in the Shire, but I hadn't drunk it for an age - Elrond's folk don't appear to have much liking for it. The Dwarves have taken it along the Road between Erebor and the Blue Mountains for many a long year. It's something of an acquired taste, though - here, sweeten it with a little honey and see what you think of it..."
"Not so much coffee being carried along the Road these days, Bilbo, I fear," Glóin sighed as Rowanna cautiously sniffed, then sipped, at the strange drink, feeling the bitter yet powerful warmth spreading into the pit of her stomach. "More of our folk are turning their faces to the West than ever return - but now is not the time to speak of such things," he added hastily as Bilbo raised an eyebrow.
"If the Road through Mirkwood were guarded by better than Wood-elves -" the other Dwarf suddenly burst out.
"Now is not the time, Gimli, nor is this the place!" his father rumbled, and Rowanna was sure that Glóin's frown to his errant son was intended to remind Gimli of her presence.
Gimli uttered a strange, harsh protest in what Rowanna guessed must be the Dwarvish tongue, only to be cut off fiercely.
"Enough, I said!" This time Glóin's barely-restrained roar subdued the conversation entirely. Feeling more and more in the way, Rowanna hastily turned to her tutor.
"Bilbo, I really must go - I wanted only to ask you whether you wished to see me for a lesson this afternoon?"
"Oh, now, let me see -" the little Hobbit looked momentarily flustered - "I really don't think we can manage it this afternoon, my dear, I'm afraid. I did promise Frodo that we'd take a walk up above the Falls now that he's feeling so much stronger. But tomorrow we must certainly resume - you'll be forgetting everything we've studied!"
Suppressing her pang of disappointment, Rowanna promised that she would, indeed, see her tutor in the library on the morrow. Excusing herself to the two Dwarves, who hastily rose and bowed, she backed into the corridor and, heaving a sigh of relief, made her escape.
Long, impatient strides carried her nearly from one end of the Last Homely House to the other before Rowanna stopped to reflect on where she might be going. Bilbo's room was towards the end of the House which backed on to the rising slope behind it, so that although his windows were close to the ground - which she supposed must suit a Hobbit very well - his room was in fact on the first floor; by following the passageway towards the front of the house, she began to pass the various spiralling staircases which descended to gardens, stables or kitchens. Bilbo, it seems, has no use for me today, she realised with a sigh. Nor were my attempts to be welcoming to Gimli son of Glóin a resounding success!
She propped her elbows on a window-ledge, shifting them until among the exquisitely carved tendrils of twining leaves she found a smooth enough spot to rest her weight, and sighed as she contemplated the glorious reds and golds of the valley slopes. I thought I had grown used to being looked on as an oddity, she admitted ruefully, after the years of the Eorlingas wondering at the little black-haired Gondorian girl who wanted to train horses - let alone Elrond's folk, who are kindly enough, but for whom I shall always be one of the Sickly Ones... She grimaced at the aptness of the nickname. But Bilbo has been so good to me, and dealt with me on such equal terms, I suppose I had begun to forget what a stranger I am here... to Dwarves as well as to Elves, it seems.
As she gazed, movement below caught her eye; leaning against one of the carved stone balustrades which guarded the garden terraces she noticed a solitary figure, broad shoulders braced as though to ward off the world as he in his turn stared out over the valley. The Steward's son... She had managed to avoid the Man in the days following their disconcerting encounter without too much difficulty, for he seemed to be keeping very much his own counsel, and had been little seen around stable-yard or house. If anything, he looks even more the stranger here than I, Rowanna realised suddenly as she watched him. It seems the "nest of Elves" is not greatly to his liking... She wondered for a brief moment, guiltily, if she should have tried to show more solidarity with a fellow Mortal, should have sought Boromir out since the Feast; but remembering his steely appraisal of her, that idea provoked a faint shiver down her spine. And have him remember any more about Mother's "disloyalty to Gondor", my girl? Besides, however strange he might find his surroundings, I dare say the heir to the Steward of Gondor has come to seek counsel with rather weightier folk than one of Elrond's lesser houseguests!
No, she concluded, Boromir had no need of her company; but the thought had shaken her out of her self-pitying mood. If Bilbo has other concerns today, there's still no need to mope about uselessly! The day was clear and sunny, if none too warm, and there was no need to keep to the House. Shaking herself from her reverie, she marched down the passageway once more and turned down a staircase which she knew would bring her out into the gardens.
I admit to shamelessly cribbing the idea of coffee as a Dwarven drink from Anglachel, queen of writers on Dwarves, in her fantastic "On Merry Yule" story. (Though coffee features in The Hobbit, so we do know it's canonical in any case.)
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