Bilbo blinked in the darkness. Something wet and sticky was coating his cheek. Levering himself into a sitting position, he put his hand into an awful, squelching mess. It smelled like a goblin. The goblin who pulled him over the edge. Fortunately, it was no longer a threat.
“I am much too old to sleep on uneven ground,” the hobbit said to himself, getting to his feet despite the ache in his back and a throbbing headache. At once, he realized that speaking might not be a good idea. Then he wondered if he should call out so that the dwarves could find him.
Near the dead goblin, he found Sting and put it back into the sheath on his belt. Unfortunately, he could go no further than that. The way became too steep to climb only a few feet behind the place where he woke. Bouncing down it while unconscious was one thing, but going up seemed impossible. So he sat down to wait.
Thorin would find him eventually. All Bilbo had to do was be patient.
Patience was difficult when he had no food to eat, no water to drink, and the stench of a dead goblin filling his nose. He wanted a pinch of pipe weed more than anything—to clear his lungs and calm his nerves—but his pipe was lost with his pack.
Nothing dangerous loomed at him out of the darkness, but neither did a boisterous party of dwarves come calling his name down the tunnel. Once, Bilbo was struck by a strange panic, and he checked his wrists. His pack was lost, along with all of his possessions, but he still had both of his cuff links. That was something. He could wait forever, with the promise of those cuff links.
After a few hours, Bilbo realized he was being quite silly. Searching the tunnels for Bilbo would put Kili in very great danger. Thorin would know Bilbo’s preference on that score, and would bring his brother to safety first. So it made sense for Bilbo to find his way out of the mountain and meet up with them there. Naturally, he was only following them to save time. He had no doubt at all that Thorin would come to rescue him. In which case, he knew he had to move quickly and catch the prince just outside of the mountain or they would cross paths entirely.
Getting up, the hobbit proceeded hastily down the tunnel.
Now, hobbits are not like clumsy Big Folk who stumble around lost and blind when underground without a light. Bilbo Baggins did not bump into walls or trip over stones, for he lived in a hole and was well used to moving in the dark. However, he was in an unfamiliar place. He did not know east from west, only that he must go east to find his friends. This was very stressful and he soon felt quite lost, despite the progress he was making through the twisting, winding passages.
Since those passages were often used by armed goblins, it is easy to understand why Bilbo threw himself to the ground to hide when he heard a strange noise. After all, hiding is always a hobbit’s best defense, and he was not in a position to fight a troop of goblins all by himself.
His hand landed on something smooth and cool. It did not feel like a rock, but the hiding hobbit had no time to inspect the thing. Shoving it into his pocket, he pressed back into a break in the wall, listening.
What he heard was not the tramping of feet. Nor was it the chatter of goblin voices raised in raucous laughter. Listening carefully, Bilbo could hear water.
“You silly old fool,” he said to himself. “You would mistake mint for horehound, you really would! Lucky your brother was not here to see this! What he would say, I have no idea. Where there is water, there may be a way out.”
Bilbo said all of this aloud, and a great many other things as well. In truth, his heart was racing. He was not afraid of the dark, nor the narrow walls of the tunnels, but he was afraid. Talking soothed him.
But his words did not go unheard.
As the tunnel opened up into a cavern, Bilbo realized that the water was not a rushing underground river that would lead to a flowing mountain stream in the open air. Instead, it was a vast, cold lake. The sound that called him there was a strange sort of rain, single droplets of water falling from the stalactites above. Each drop echoed, and the slightest sound was magnified tremendously between the water and the walls.
Edging along the rocky shore carefully, Bilbo dipped his hands into the water and drank greedily. It was far too cold, and much deeper than he liked, even so close to the shore, but it was water. After his long run through the goblin tunnels, not to mention his long wait where he landed, he was desperately thirsty. He drank his fill, handful after handful, and then he washed his face. Dousing even his hair in the cold water, he tried to clean off the smell of goblin as best he could without undressing. He was not quite silly enough to try to clean his jacket in that dark place.
Instead, he filled his wooden canteen and crept silently along the shoreline, as only hobbits can. The last thing he wanted was to catch the attention of some foul denizen of the darkness. Unfortunately, he already had it.
Out toward the center of the lake, a shape moved in the darkness. Although it paddled through the water just as silently as the hobbit’s feet fell upon the land, Bilbo could see ripples in the water. He could sense movement in the dark. As it drew up on the shore, he saw a little boat with two bright eyes hovering above the prow, shining like lamps in the darkness.
“Not a goblin, is it Precious?” said the thing. “Gollum, gollum.”
“No,” Bilbo said quickly. “No, not a goblin at all. I am Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, a hobbit. And you are?”
“Gollum, gollum.” Springing from the boat like a frog, the creature landed in front of Bilbo. It was smaller than him, but only because it had very little flesh on its wiry frame. Since it wore only a ragged loincloth, Bilbo could count the unfortunate fellow’s ribs. “Not a goblin, no. We likes goblins, though. Likes to crunch their bones, don’t we Precious? Likes to suck the marrow and chew the meat. Goblins are nice enough, when we can get them.”
Stumbling backward, Bilbo drew his Sting, waving it in front of him to ward the creature back. “What sort of game are you playing? Trying to frighten me?”
The creature, Gollum, stopped creeping forward. Tilting its head to the side, it looked at Bilbo with a long, unblinking stare. “Does it like games, Precious? Does it want to play a game?”
In fact, Bilbo did not want to play a game. He wanted to find Kili. He wanted out of the cold cave and away from the water. “Will you show me the way out of the mountain, if I win?”
Gollum laughed, wracking out a few more “gollum, gollum” sounds as he did so. “Oh yes, Precious. Yes, we will. And if it loses, we eats it!”
Bilbo swallowed. While his heartbeat roared in his ears, he heard also the dripping water from the roof of the cavern into the vast lake. Mountains and lakes do not care for the problems of hobbits. “Fair enough.” Sting trembled in his hands.
“Riddles?” Gollum sounded strangely young and excited. Barring the darkness, the lake, and the threat of unwanted dinner invitations, he seemed almost friendly. “Does it like a game of riddles, Precious?”
Since he happened to be rather good at riddles, Bilbo modestly agreed to this plan.
“Well, go ahead and ask us one, then, Precious. Ask us! Ask us!”
Clearing the nerves from his throat, Bilbo went with a classic. “Round as a rabbit’s tail, bright as a bee, I have two eyes, but I cannot see.”
Although this was a very easy riddle, Gollum blinked at Bilbo for a long moment. Seconds ticked past. Water dropped into the lake. Then, the creature laughed. “Buttons, Precious! Buttons. We sees them winking from your jacket, though we don’t waste time with them ourself.”
“Yes.” Bilbo did not sigh. He had not really hoped to win the game in the first round. “That’s right. It’s your turn.”
Leaping like a frog onto a nearby boulder, Gollum raised his hands dramatically. Out of the shadows, Bilbo could see now that he was almost hobbit like, though there were only a few thin hairs on his head.
”Can’t be moved, can’t be beat
Blocks the most determined feet
Cold as ice where clouds it bites
Only safe away from lights
Roots deeper than trees
And taller than the leaves”
“Gollum.” Coughing and baring its jagged teeth, the creature sneered at Bilbo. “Guesses very quickly, doesn’t it, Precious. Gollum, gollum. A mountain. Yes, a mountain. Ask us another.” But this last lacked the things earlier childish glee.
Frightened, Bilbo wished for Thorin. So only one riddle came to mind. “The jauntiest cap in the forest is mine. Beneath my hard shell, a treasure you’ll find.”
Disappointed in himself for asking such a simple, obvious riddle, the hobbit didn’t notice for a long while that Gollum was stumped. On his boulder, the crouching thing put its hands down, swung its legs out in front of it, and sat, obviously thinking hard. In the distance, water dripped. Bilbo wondered, not for the first time, just how deep that cold, dark lake must be.
Counting droplets, keeping his eyes on Gollum, Bilbo decided not to hurry the creature along. Years of living with his tempestuous brother during the dwarven equivalent of the tweens had taught him that some people did not react well to being rushed.
Finally, Gollum said in a small, soft voice, “Give us a hint, Precious?”
“If you promise not to eat me,” Bilbo said promptly.
“Gollum, gollum.” Notably, the creature did not make any such promise. Instead, it said, “What is in forests, Precious? Trees.”
“Is that your guess?” Bilbo asked.
Continuing without answering, Gollum mumbled, “Treeses, flowers, birds, and bees. Fruits and seeds. It has a shell, Precious. Not a snail. No, not a snail, but has a shell. Like a seeds. Seeds, Precious. Seeds and trees.” Suddenly, triumphantly, he cried out, “Acorn! Acorns, Precious, acorns. Grandmother had us gather them in. Feed to the piggy, roast them in the fire, dip them in honey. Acorns, Precious, yes, though it was so very long ago.”
“Yes.” Disturbing as it was to think of Gollum with a family, a home, and a grandmother, keeping pigs, Bilbo tried to stay on task. “You’re very clever. Yes, it’s an acorn.”
Preening, Gollum bounced over to a different boulder. “My turn to ask,” he cried. “My turn!”
“Yes.” Bilbo’s heart sank. “Yes, it’s your turn to ask.”
”He stalks me everywhere I go
In sun and rain and wind and snow.
Fly the moon and fear the sun,
Beneath the earth you needn’t run.”
“Perhaps a shadow?” Bilbo guessed modestly.
Snarling and spitting, the creature admitted the point with no grace at all. “Ask us, then, Precious. Ask us another stinking riddle. Gollum, gollum.”
Terribly aware that he needed to not only win, but remain in Gollum’s good graces, Bilbo wanted desperately to run away. He could not ask Gollum an easy riddle to keep it happy, but he also could not afford to frustrate the creature into violence.
“Flies without wings, best friends with strings, I’m never low, when tied to a bow,” Bilbo said, feeling that something long and poetic might try Gollum’s patience.
Gollum laughed again, and answered far too quickly. “An arrow, Precious. Goblins shoots them, don’t they, Precious, but only when they sees us.” With a cough of “gollum” the creature’s demeanor changed into something darker and he added, “They never sees us.”
In this same dark mood, the creature crept close to Bilbo. His final presentation was low voiced and dangerous. Bilbo could only back away as he listened.
”Thief of voices, thoughts, and deeds:
Lurks within the deep ravine,
On quiet ponds among the reeds,
Between sharp rocks with edges keen,
And in the darkest, blackest caves.
Noise is taken. Silence saves. “
Bilbo’s foot touched the icy water of the underground lake, shocking him to his senses. He would not allow the creature to drown him. That, most of all, he would not allow. A Baggins of Bag End did not drown. Pulling his foot from the water, he heard the drips. Drip, drip, drip, all around the cave. Then, he knew.
“Echoes,” he said, loudly enough that his own voice answered.
“Gollum!” Once again, the creature snarled, but it relented. “Last riddle, Precious. Tired of games, aren’t we Precious? Ready to eat.”
As Bilbo had no doubts whatsoever regarding the nature of that meal, all of the riddles he knew flew from his mind. He could not charm Gollum, and somehow he did not think that even winning the game would save him. Desperately, he put his hand in his pocket to still its trembling. There, it encountered the smooth surface of the thing he’d picked up and forgotten about in the tunnel earlier.
“What have I got in my pocket?” he wondered aloud.
“What?” Gollum’s voice lost its dark quality and became the whine of a cheated child instead. “Can’t ask us that, Precious! It’s not a fair question.”
Since it seemed his only hope of keeping Gollum in the childish mood instead of the dark one, Bilbo repeated, “What have I got in my pocket? You must answer, or show me the way out.”
“Give us three guesses,” Gollum demanded. “You must give us guesses. It’s not a proper riddle, Precious.”
Suddenly, Bilbo realized what Gollum reminded him of. Being a good example to Kili meant that Bilbo often took tea with and helped around the houses of the very old in Hobbiton. Kili had done far more yard work at old widow Holman’s place than he’d ever done at Bag End, and Bilbo had drunk a commensurate amount of tea there. The sudden shifts in mood, the regression to an earlier, childish self, was not dissimilar to certain affect of advanced age. Gollum spoke of a youth in the sunshine, but he had clearly lived in the darkness for a long, long time. He must be quite old.
Shameful as it was, Bilbo knew how to take advantage of that. “I shall give you unlimited guesses.”
“Unlimited!” Gollum crowed like a child and bounced around Bilbo on all fours like a frog. “I’ll win then, Precious. I’ll win! Unlimited guesses!”
“But,” Bilbo said sharply, “for each guess, I am going to ask you a question, and you must answer it honestly.”
Humming, Gollum sank into a crouch. “Alright,” he said. “Knife.”
“No,” Bilbo answered, gesturing to Sting. “My knife is in my hand. What is the best way to exit the mountain on the eastern slopes?”
“Goblins back door,” Gollum said, though this told Bilbo precisely nothing. “Hands.”
“No.” Bilbo waved his free hand, which he had thankfully withdrawn from his pocket during the earlier answer. “Which way do I go to get to the back door?”
Gollum pointed vaguely. “String.”
“No,” Bilbo said. “What obstacles will I encounter on the way to the back door?”
“Goblins.” Gollum shrugged, then narrowed his eyes and coughed his peculiar little cough. He seemed to be tired of guessing. “Baggins might be too fat to squeeze through the tunnel, mightn’t he, Precious? Oh yes. Time to guess. We’ll guess. Nothing! That’s what he has in his pockets. Nothing! And he must show it to us to prove otherwise. Gollum, gollum.”
“Alright, alright,” Bilbo said quickly, putting his hand into his pocket. “I’ll show it to you.”
Gollum’s eyes narrowed, but he sat back and waited to see the answer to the riddle. Rather than show it to him, Bilbo turned and sprinted in the direction of the so called back door.
Howling, Gollum bounded after him, speeding along on all fours. If he was as old as Bilbo suspected, none of it showed in his ability to run. With every step, the hobbit heard Gollum’s eager breath growing closer. Each second, he expected to feel those grasping hands close around his neck. Then, he tripped.
Slamming onto the ground hard, landing on the arm that was still in his pocket, Bilbo Baggins twisted in the gravel, expecting to feel the heavy weight of a predator and fingers about his throat. Instead, he felt nothing. Just above him, Gollum stood, looking around wildly.
“Gone?” Gollum felt at the pouch of his loincloth for something. Not finding whatever it was, the creature ripped the pouch open, tearing it in half. It was empty. “Gone!” Gollum wailed. “Gone, gone, gone! Baggins! Thief! What has it got in its pockets? Precious! Precious!”
Slowly, silently, Bilbo drew his hand from his pocket. On his finger there was a bright, golden ring. Gollum did not see it. Although they were only a few feet apart, Gollum could not see him. The ring made him invisible.
Panicking, Gollum looked around. “Gone,” he repeated. “Gone, but not lost. Goblins back door, Precious. Beat Baggins to it. Get the Precious back.” Then he tore off, racing up rocks and into a tunnel leading away from the lake, clearly headed for the aforementioned back door. Still invisible, Bilbo followed behind. He could not ask for a better guide.
In fact, it was a very good thing for Bilbo that Gollum lead him to the back door. The tunnels and paths they raced along twisted and branched. Alone, the hobbit would soon have lost his way. Fortunately, even though panic lent wings to Gollum’s feet, the creature was not much faster than a hobbit. Bilbo was able to keep up, and soon enough they came to the narrow place that Gollum warned of.
Ahead, there was a narrow crack through which Bilbo could see goblin torchlight. Gollum did not squeeze through the tight place. Instead, the creature crouched in front of it, waiting. “Did we beat him here, Precious? Gollum, gollum. Must have. We must have, Precious.”
There was no way for Bilbo to get past, so he sat as well, invisible, waiting. It occurred to him that being invisible gave a distinct advantage in a fight. He could simply stab Gollum. The creature would never see it coming. Yet Gollum looked so very old and tired. As the hours wore on, and Bilbo could see the light through the crack change, sunlight adding to the torchlight, Gollum began to cry. Bilbo Baggins was not hard hearted enough to murder someone while they were quietly sobbing. So he waited. The sunlight seemed to hurt Gollum’s eyes, for the creature flinched, and winced, and eventually crept away. Hopefully, he would go back down to his lake peacefully and think no more about the ring.
That was Bilbo’s now.