Bilbo stumbled down the side of the mountain, blinking in the early morning light. Slipping the ring off his finger, he put it back in his pocket. Useful and beautiful as the little thing was, wearing it made the hobbit rather uncomfortable. The world looked different through the veil of invisibility.
Besides, Bilbo did not want to be invisible. He wanted to find his friends. They would certainly not spot him if he was hiding away.
Part of Bilbo had hoped to see Thorin sitting just outside the mountain. Perhaps artfully arranged with a book, as though supremely confident in Bilbo’s ability to find him. Thorin had a lovely profile when he was reading. That regal nose and dignified beard gave him a very bold aspect which contrasted beautifully with the peace of reading.
Unfortunately, the grass was too sparse on the mountainside for that sort of picture. Pine trees were terrible for growing ground cover, and the earth was too gravelly beneath Bilbo’s feet. So he looked around for Kili instead. Surely, Kili would be hanging from a pine bough somewhere nearby. Swinging upside-down to startle his brother, the younger Baggins loved to make trouble. Bilbo just had to find him.
“Kili!” he called loudly, “Where are you?”
There was no answer.
“Kili! Thorin! Gandalf! Is anyone there?”
Bilbo’s voice echoed lightly among the pines, reminding him uncomfortably of the terrible dripping in Gollum’s lake. For the first time, it occurred to Bilbo that the dwarves might still be in the goblin tunnels. They might not have made it through the mountain. Turning, Bilbo looked back up along the path. The entrance into the mountain looked like an empty, gaping mouth. But he would go back there. For Kili. For Thorin.
Happily, before he could return to the darkness, Bilbo spotted a bright scrap of cloth snagged on a jagged rock. It was a bit of the embroidered red silk that lined Dori’s tunic. Bilbo would know that dashing stitching anywhere. The dwarves were nearby, waiting for him.
“Balin! Dwalin!” Raising his voice even more, Bilbo cried, “Fili! Are you near?”
Now that he was looking, Bilbo saw all sorts of broken branches, footprints, and kicked pebbles. They were as good as a sign post pointing the way to his friends. Heartened, the hobbit skipped down the path, shouting every few minutes for one of his fellows. “Dori! Ori! Nori!”
He came to a place beside an old stump where the dwarves must have stood for a little while. A few scraps of bandage lay upon the gravel. Clearly, Oin had taken the opportunity to redress some wound.
“Oin! Gloin!” Bilbo shouted. The only answer was his own voice, echoing among the tall trees.
Hurrying along, Bilbo continued to search the area for signs of his friends. Certain as he was that they were all waiting for him somewhere, he was well aware that he was tardy. A Baggins ought to be punctual, and Bilbo had been dragging his feet in those caves for hours. Kili was sure to give him a smug look when he caught up.
“Bifur! Bofur! Bombur!” he called, but all he could see was rocks and trees.
Then, he saw more.
In a stand of pine beside a high cliff, Bilbo saw burned and blackened trees. He saw bodies. Dead bodies. Swallowing hard, the little hobbit crept closer. Once he could see the bodies properly, he let out all his breath in a whooshing sigh. They were only orcs.
Which was not to say he would have been happy to meet any one of those orcs on a dark night. The orcs were much larger than the mountain goblins, and even mountain goblins were serious opponents to little Bilbo Baggins. On his own, in the wild, he had very little defense against either. Judging by the felled trees and burnt corpses, the big orcs presented a challenge even for the dwarves. In the grass, beside the torn up roots of the largest tree, Bilbo found Thorin’s shield.
They must have fled in haste, to leave behind something so important.
Bilbo sat down hard.
Fingers tracing the smooth, lacquered surface of the wooden shield, Bilbo eyed the smelly corpses. The largest, a pale monster with a bald head, had an arrow embedded in its skull. Recognizing his brother’s work gave the hobbit a little surge of pride. It was enough to get him back on his feet. Resolving to think of only positive, helpful things, the little hobbit searched the grisly place.
The dwarves were well. Kili was fighting fit. Thorin was safe. If they had to leave behind a few cumbersome things along the way, that was only for the best. Rooting around the discarded remains of the battlefield, he found a few strips of leather. With those, he made a little sling for the oak branch, so he would not have to carry it in hand. It was no heavier than any other piece of firewood. Since Bilbo had no pack, it did not weigh him down.
Unfortunately, the lack of supplies was a mixed blessing. True, Bilbo could move very lightly with only the big shield and his little sword to carry. However, he also had no food, no water, and no bedroll. Worse yet, all of his spare clothes were somewhere in the goblin tunnels, likely being mutilated beyond recognition by the foul creatures.
Sighing, Bilbo straightened up. He needed to go east, down the mountain, and then north a bit to the Lonely Mountain. In the interim, he would pass through a forest known to some as the Greenwood and to others as Mirkwood. It was neither complicated nor difficult. If he could not find his friends, he would meet them at their mutual destination. Moping about would do no one any good.
Drinking the last droplet of water from the wooden canteen at his belt, Bilbo set off. A little after noon, he had the great luck of happening across a stand of pine trees which he knew to be a good and helpful sort. The cones were not quite open all the way, and the nuts within were very small, but they gave him something to chew on as he walked. Around tea time, he found a clear, rushing stream. In the sweet, babbling water, Bilbo was once again able to drink his fill, wash his face, and fill his canteen.
Indeed, everything seemed to be going very well. Until the sun set and the goblins returned.
Eager as he was to go all the way to Erebor in single day, Bilbo was utterly exhausted by the time the sun began to sink behind the mountain. Long shadows made the pine trees loom ever more ominously, and the little hobbit decided that bedding down for the night sounded like a fine idea. His stomach grumbled about a pine nut supper, especially given that the pine nuts were not really ripe enough to harvest.
Wedging himself between two boulders, Bilbo looked out over the land beyond the great shadows cast by the Misty Mountains. He could see a vast forest, and he fancied, beyond that, a single, solitary peak still bathed in light. The Lonely Mountain: where he would never be lonely again. Tucking his chin against the shoulder of his jacket, he closed his eyes and fell fast asleep.
Bilbo did not dream. Instead, he woke suddenly in the dark, blinking up at the silver moon. The rock was uncomfortable against his back and shoulders. His cheek ached with an imprint from his improvised pillow that might just bruise. Despite his jacket, he shivered in the wind. At first, Bilbo thought it was only discomfort which woke him. Then, he heard the harsh, guttural language.
Bilbo Baggins spoke many languages, but he did not understand the tongues of goblins or orcs. Quickly ducking behind one of the boulders, Bilbo peered through the darkness. A band of six goblins had a beautiful stag lashed with thick, rough ropes. Shrieking and laughing, they pulled the thing in opposite directions.
The stag tried to fight, angling his antlers this way and that. Kicking one goblin hard, he sent it sliding down the gravely slope. When the goblin stopped sliding, it snarled, putting a hand to its bloody face. Getting to its feet, the creature drew a wicked knife. The other goblins laughed and whipped the stag. It screamed. The fallen goblin trudged back up the mountainside. Bilbo knew that when the knife reached the stag, matters would conclude unhappily for the elegant animal. Yet he also knew that he could not fight six goblins alone.
Bleating in pain, the stag made a soft, sad sound. It was more heartrending than the screams.
Slipping on his ring, Bilbo became invisible. Creeping down the path silently, Bilbo slipped around behind the climbing goblin. Drawing Sting, he drove the blade into the goblin’s back, straight through the heart. The goblin crumpled to the ground. His fellows didn’t notice, only continued to torture the stag.
Taking a deep breath, Bilbo flicked the blood from Sting. Once he started in on the goblin band, they would notice him, invisible or not.
Before Bilbo could move, an earsplitting roar shook the mountainside. Crashing through the trees, a gigantic black bear bowled into the goblins. Biting the legs off one, the bear slapped another with its massive paw. Since the goblin was no larger than the bear’s paw, it was finished. Morbidly, Bilbo watched the half goblin breathe its last. By the time he was able to tear his gaze away, all of the other goblins were dead.
The stag, still covered in ropes and blood, stared at the bear. It did not flee.
Slowly, the enormous bear shrank, rising up on two legs as it did so. Horror turned to wonder as Bilbo saw a man standing in place of the bear. The man was still tremendously large, taller than Gandalf and much, much broader. Moonlight spilled over his naked body, and Bilbo saw far more than he wished to see of a stranger.
Removing the heavy ropes from the stag’s back, the man began cleaning its wounds. “Come to my house,” he said. “Rest. Eat. Heal.”
Bilbo did not know if the stag understood these words, but it did lick the bear-man’s hand.
Putting his ring back in his pocket, Bilbo called out at once. “Sir! Rarely have I seen such bravery or charity embodied in a single person. I wonder if your kindness could extend to one more beggar. I find myself separated from my companions and in desperately reduced circumstances after a similar encounter with goblins on the other side of these mountains.”
Turning with a snarl of surprise, the bear-man looked at Bilbo. Slowly, the curl left his lips and he stopped showing his teeth. “The blood of that dead goblin is on your sword.”
“Oh, yes.” Bilbo looked down at the goblin just behind him. “Although I am no great hero like yourself, I did wish to help this poor creature.”
Not wanting to muddy the matter with too many facts, the hobbit did not mention that it was torture and cruelty to which he objected. Nor that venison often made an appearance at his supper table.
“My name is Bilbo Baggins of Bag End and the Shire.” Bilbo bowed as formally as possible under the circumstances. “Nothing would please me more than to make your acquaintance, sir.”
“I am Beorn.” The man smiled. “You have nice manners, Bilbo Baggins.”
“You are very kind to say so. My father used to say that even a hobbit who has nothing can still have standards.”
“You are a hobbit. I have heard of your people. Never met one.”
“Then you have me at a disadvantage, Master Beorn. I have never even heard of people who can be a bear one minute and a man the next.”
Beorn looked up at the moon for a long moment. Bilbo did not know if he was sad or merely thinking. “Skinchanger is the old name for my folk,” he said at last. “You will come to my house, Bilbo Baggins. For food, rest, and healing if you need it.”
Nearly collapsing in relief, Bilbo thanked his new friend profusely. In fact, he did not stop thanking Beorn all the way down the mountain. Even when the injured stag began chewing on Bilbo’s hair while they walked, the hobbit did not object. He was perfectly aware that he would not do well alone. Despite the fact that Kili and Thorin clearly had faith in his ability to manage.
Beorn’s house was beautiful when the first pink light of dawn struck the golden thatch of his roof. While it did not rival the grandeur of Rivendell, the stature of the place was all the more impressive for being a structure Bilbo knew well. Rivendell’s architecture seemed to grow from elven magic. In contrast, Bilbo had seen many houses with stone walls and thatched roofs in his time. They were very popular with the Big Folk who farmed the lands around Bree. Yet Bilbo had never imagined a house as large as Beorn’s.
Beorn’s garden gate was twice Bilbo’s height, for all that it only came up to the giant’s chest. Despite feeling rather undersized, the hobbit was tremendously relieved to hear the weathered wood creak shut behind him. Within the walls of that garden, he was once again safe.
Clearly, the stag felt the same, for it immediately skipped off to graze with some fat, lovely ponies nearby.
All manner of creatures lived on Beorn’s land. Bilbo saw sheep, goats, cats, and dogs, which he would naturally expect to find on such a homestead, but he also saw mice, gophers, and rabbits. Most farmers would chase away such rodents. Not Beorn.
“All are welcome here,” the skinchanger said. “All are friends of mine. They do not harm one another. If they did, I would not let them stay.”
“Do the bees understand that?” Bilbo asked playfully. For they were the most prominent resident of all. Beorn had over thirty beehives dotting his land. Almost every flower had a bee drinking its fill, and one buzzed lazily over Bilbo’s jacket, attracted by the bright color.
“Bees are bees,” Beorn said. “Do not bother them. They will not bother you.”
“And it’s impossible to grow a good tomato without them,” Bilbo agreed quickly. Apparently, Beorn was not given to light humor. Eager to ingratiate himself, the hobbit said, “Your tomatoes are quite lovely. I’ve been known to grow them myself, you know, in the Shire. They must get excellent light here, but how do you water them? You cannot grow tomatoes like this relying only on the rain.”
So Beorn showed Bilbo around his garden, and the hobbit admired every plant, flower, fruit, and vegetable in sight. Blossoming under the compliments, the skinchanger answered all of Bilbo’s questions. He even deigned to ask the hobbit’s opinion once or twice. Bilbo was able to give him some very good advice about the location of his snap pea patch, which was not doing as well as it had in previous years.
“That is my garden.” Beorn looked up at the sun, which was nearing its zenith. “Would you look at more? I am hungry, and would go inside. But you may keep looking.”
“Oh!” Bilbo felt his cheeks run hot. “I hope you were not extending the tour for my amusement. If the invitation to dine is an open one, I should be quite happy to join you.”
Beorn blinked. “Come inside and eat.”
The first thing Beorn did upon entering the hall was to don trousers. This was naturally a great salve to Bilbo’s sensibilities. The hobbit had been beginning to wonder if the skinchanger knew what trousers were. While the garments themselves were rough spun wool, not at all something Bilbo would commission for himself, in comparison to no trousers at all, they made Beorn look extremely civilized. Though he did not, it must be said, don a shirt as well.
Once clothed—if trousers alone can be called clothing—the skinchanger brought out bread, cheese, honey, and milk. Each was the finest Bilbo had ever tasted. The bread was thick, spongey, and full of seeds, making it quite sturdy enough to bear the bold, sweet honey. A sharp contrast, the cheese was hard and full of flavor. Washing it all down with good, creamy milk, Bilbo enjoyed the meal more than any other in his life. Hunger is, after all, the best spice.
Upon polishing off his third block of the sharp cheese, Bilbo noticed that Beorn was staring at him. What did not always occur to a guest hard at work on a sideboard that kept being filled occurred to him then. Blushing once more, Bilbo said, “My apologies if I am over indulging. I do not mean to take advantage of your hospitality.”
Laughing, Beorn tousled Bilbo’s hair with a massive hand. Somehow, it felt more like affection than condescension. “Little Bunny, be at home. Get fat on bread and honey.” Then he showed Bilbo to his storerooms, which put even the three pantries at Bag End to shame.
The hobbit did not worry overmuch thereafter about stinting himself.
In fact, to show his gratitude, he took over the cooking for the next few days. Treating Beorn to a few elaborate puddings, trifles, and casseroles seemed like a small gesture. They shared many meals and stories. Bilbo told Beorn all about the dwarves, his brother, and his journey. In turn, Beorn told him quiet tales of woodland creatures. He was a simple soul, and though Bilbo could tell he hated goblins with a deep passion, Beorn never spoke of darkness.
Unfortunately, the skinchanger liked the hobbit’s cooking a little too much. Three days after arriving, when Bilbo felt well rested enough to broach the matter of supplies for his departure, Beorn was displeased.
“You will stay here,” the skinchanger said. “The wild is no place for you.”
“I’m afraid I cannot,” Bilbo said. “You have been most kind, but I must find my brother and my friends.”
“No.” Beorn did not raise his voice, but he spoke as though this simple denial ended the matter. It did not.
“Mister Beorn, you are generosity itself, but I have no intention of living out my days here as one of your pets.”
Beorn frowned. “Friends. Not pets.”
“If that is the case, then you must treat me as a friend, and respect my wish to go.”
The giant hesitated, but he did not give in. “Next year. If you still want to leave. Mirkwood is too dangerous now, but it has been less dangerous in the past. Maybe it will be less dangerous next year.”
“Absolutely not!” Suddenly, Bilbo could not keep hold of his tongue. “I am engaged to Thorin Oakenshield, you know. Nothing is going to bar me from him. Not some forest. Not your garden wall. And certainly not you!”
Beorn blinked. “Engaged? To be married.”
Bilbo hesitated. Although he’d shared a great deal with Beorn about his brother and their journey to Erebor, he had not let that little tidbit fall. One never knew how certain news might be met. It seemed that the wide world was more accepting of such things than the Shire. After all, Elrond threw them an engagement party. But Bilbo had lived his whole life in secrecy for a reason. He did not know what to do.
Deciding to take a chance, the hobbit said, “Yes.”
“Not a bunny,” Beorn muttered. “A bird.” Which made no sense at all.
“Listen,” Bilbo tried. “You must understand, I love him. I love him a great deal. And there is my brother to think about as well. I simply cannot stay here for a year. They are probably already quite worried about what is keeping me.”
“You are bringing that stick to him,” Beorn said slowly, “and then getting married?”
“Well, I think he would be jolly displeased to hear you call it a stick.” Bilbo shrugged. “It is his Oakenshield. He’s named for it. But essentially, yes.”
Beorn nodded gravely. “If that is how it must be for hobbits, I will help you.”
Not knowing what being a hobbit had to do with anything, Bilbo said, “Thank you. I should be very grateful for any provisions you might be able to spare for my journey.”
“I will see you to the edge of Mirkwood myself,” the skinchanger said. “And give you all the provisions you can carry. You must not eat or drink anything you find in that forest. To do so would be a deadly mistake. And you must stay on the path.”
“I will,” Bilbo said. “Thank you, I will manage.” But he wondered if his friends had such a warning when they entered Mirkwood. He wondered if Kili and Thorin were alright.