Although he was in a great hurry to be off, Bilbo spent another week with Beorn. Arranging provisions and devising a way to carry the oaken shield without feeling the weight too much took time. Beorn also wanted to weave a new cloak for Bilbo. The skinchanger knew some little art to help Bilbo go unscented by predators. Coupled with a hobbit’s natural ability to move silently, such a cloak would help him greatly in the dark of Mirkwood.
When Beorn at last opened his garden gate once more, they went together with four strong ponies. One of these was saddled for Bilbo to ride, but as Beorn was walking, the hobbit walked along. For the most part.
They stopped frequently as they went for lavish picnics on the grass from the food carried by the ponies. Water was plentiful in lovely streams, brooks, and little rivers that reminded Bilbo very much of the Shire. Even so, they drank milk and mead from the ponies as often as they drank water. It was a very comfortable way to travel. Despite the lack of inns at which to stop for a pint, it was not unlike taking a walking holiday with Kili.
Bilbo enjoyed Beorn’s company. They told stories, sang songs, and had a very merry time of it. Of course, Bilbo did a greater share of the talking and singing, but when Beorn chose to speak, he was always worth listening to. He spoke of other skinchangers, long ago, taken and enslaved by orcs. He sang of long, quiet sleep in winter and ancient battles between peoples Bilbo did not know. Most of all, he told Bilbo about Mirkwood.
“I shall set your feet upon the Old Forest Road, Bilbo Baggins. If any path through that black place be safe, it is the ancient road. You must stay upon it, and never stray.”
“It is further south than other paths. Closer to the Black Tower.”
“That does not sound promising.”
Beorn looked deeply unimpressed. “The tower of the Necromancer is not a joke.”
“I only meant that perhaps I ought to take this other path you mention,” Bilbo said placatingly. “Especially if it is further north. As you know, I mean to head north once I’m out of the woods. That is the way to the Lonely Mountain.”
Beorn walked in silence for a little while. Eventually, he said, “No. That path is too dangerous for you alone.”
He had been saying a great many things of that nature as Mirkwood loomed large ahead. Bilbo knew that if he pressed, Beorn would escort him through the forest. Escort him, but abandon all of the creatures who relied upon the skinchanger’s protection for sanctuary. Bilbo could not ask so much of such a new acquaintance.
“I will take the road, if you think it best.”
“Yes,” Beorn said. “It is best.”
To change the subject, Bilbo told the heroic tale of Thorin Oakenshield and the Dragon Smaug. It was not his first rendition of the story for Beorn, but the skinchanger seemed to approve of it very much.
“He is a worthy mate for you.”
Sometimes, Bilbo wondered about Beorn’s language. He really did.
On their last night together, camping at the very edge of the dark forest, Bilbo and Beorn built a tremendous bonfire. Feasting on all the remaining pies and pastries—which were only just still good after their long trip from Beorn’s house—they laughed and sang late into the night. When they woke with the dawn, however, there was no trace of that merriment.
One by one, Beorn repeated his cautions over breakfast. “Drink nothing.”
“Yes, you’ve said. The only water you know of in the forest is a river that sends the unwary into an enchanted sleep. I’ll be careful.”
“Stay on the path.”
“I plan to. What reason could I have to leave it? I am hardly going to invent a shortcut through an unfamiliar wood.”
“Above all, do not go south. Stay away from the Tower. Stay away from the Necromancer.”
“I will. Of course I will. As long as I stay on the Old Forest Road, I cannot go near Dol Guldur, can I?”
Accepting this promise, Beorn lifted the hobbit in a great hug, squeezing him and petting his hair. This was tremendously undignified. Bilbo would never have stood for it in ordinary circumstances, but he was very fond of Beorn. Without the skinchanger’s generosity, Bilbo would not be so close to catching up with his friends, and he knew it.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for everything. Your hospitality and kindness are virtues unmatched in all the world, Beorn, and they have won you a friend for life. I shall send you an invitation to my wedding! Though naturally you will not be able to attend, it being so far away. I quite understand that you cannot leave your other friends and your lands unprotected for so long.”
“No,” Beorn agreed. “I cannot leave my lands. But perhaps I should.” He looked down at the little hobbit very seriously.
“Oh! That is such a very kind offer, dear Beorn. Believe me, I wish I could accept it with all my heart, but I will manage. I will manage the way small creatures in a large forest always do: by being smart and staying hidden. I can creep along quite subtly when needs must, you know.”
“Yes,” Beorn said. “That is best. I could not stand against the Necromancer if all my clan lived to fight beside me. Go quietly, then, and go with haste.”
And so Bilbo did.
The Old Forest Road was wide enough for two carts to pass and paved with stone in ancient times. Although the forest encroached upon it—with moss growing over the broken flagstones and weeds springing up in every crack or crevice—the trees did not. On either side of the road, the forest was as black as night. However, the road itself, though over-canopied by the trees, was the grateful recipient of the occasional shaft of sunlight. It was dim and shadowy, but Bilbo could see.
He could see eyes, mostly, glowing at him in the darker forest. Only when one darted across the path did he realize these eyes belonged to large black squirrels. The squirrels chittered and scolded, but they were not very frightening.
Bilbo tried to ignore the fact that some of the eyes were rather larger than others.
While he knew that his supplies must last him through the entire wood, Bilbo kept a hobbit’s schedule. He stopped for second breakfast, took off his pack, and enjoyed a sip of water paired with a few walnuts. For elevensies, he treated himself to an entire apple, though no water. At lunch, he had half of one of Beorn’s twice baked cakes. These were made with honey, and very nice, though they were quite dry and would keep for a long time. By necessity, he had two sips of water with it. During afternoon tea, he had three grapes. These were very good, so he had three more and the other half of the cake for dinner.
The important thing was to set aside the weight of the oak shield for a while and have a rest. And to be very, very careful with his supplies. For the most part, Bilbo did well on that first day, until the time came for supper.
Stopping at sunset was imperative. Darkness in Mirkwood was pure blackness, so dark that Bilbo could not see his hand in front of his own face. To ward off the eyes, the darkness, and the fear which crept up on him as subtly as any hobbit, he built a watch fire. For a little while, the merry blaze gave him comfort. Then he noticed the eyes gathering around in the darkness. More than he could count blinked at him from the woods, and not all paired in the usual sets of two. The little hobbit trembled.
Then, the moths attacked. They were big, black things that flew at his fire and beat their wings about his head. Although they did not bite, they were a terrible nuisance, slapping him about. He got no rest until he doused the fire. Even then, he could still see most of the eyes.
Bilbo did not sleep that first night.
At breakfast, he was so hungry he ate an eighth of a wheel of cheese, half a cake, and another whole apple. After the terrible night, he needed the comfort. Weak, gray sunlight could not offer it. No birds sang in Mirkwood.
Fortunately, Bilbo Baggins was a quick learner. He went back to rationing carefully. The second night he made no fire. A small hobbit—curled up beneath a brown cloak woven by a skinchanger—went unnoticed in the blackness. The glittering eyes still filled the forest, but they no longer turned toward him.
Several days passed this way. Despite Bilbo’s best efforts, his pack grew lighter and lighter. In particular, the water he carried diminished. The wooden canteen on his belt went empty first. Then, one of the three enormous waterskins given to him by Beorn. He did not miss the weight, but as his days ran together one very like the next in scenery and mood, the only change seemed to be his diminishing provisions.
One day, it rained heavily. On that day, the hobbit made no progress, but instead lay with his head back, trying to catch water from the sky in his wooden canteen and upon the lining of his cloak, which he used to replenish his first waterskin. This was very clever of him, but it was rather miserable at the time to be soaking wet with no recourse. Even doing this, he only managed to fill the skin halfway. Soon enough, it emptied again.
When the second water skin emptied as well, Bilbo ran out of the fresh fruit he’d been using to make the water less necessary. But he pressed on. He was a Baggins. He would not shrink in the face of a trifling little difficulty.
Besides, Kili was waiting for him. Somewhere.
In the end, the state of his provisions became the least of Bilbo’s concerns. When he was very near the end of his road—though of course he did not know it—Bilbo was surprised by flashes of light off to his right in the usually dark wood. He heard also a great wailing and the crash of arms. Casting up his hood, the hobbit hid himself as best he could without leaving the path. Warily, he stared into the forest, trying to understand what he saw.
First, there came a column of green fire and a clap like thunder. In answer to this, Bilbo saw red flames and swirling dark clouds outlining a black tower. Realizing with a start that this must be the tower of the Necromancer, the hobbit decided to run. Hiding at the foot of such a tower during a great battle was risking too much. Running down the road was his best chance of getting well away.
Then he heard the elf. She had a mighty voice, and spoke in the high tongue. She spoke the name of Elbereth Glithoniel and called upon many other great powers besides. Hers was a white light in the darkness, pushing back the flames. A noble calling to stand against great evil.
Well, one could respect such a person while still not taking on a hopeless battle for oneself, Bilbo reasoned.
She cried out in pain and rage. Her light glowed ever brighter against the shadow. Against the fire. Against the darkness.
She did not stand alone. Bilbo could hear other voices shouting, other swords clashing. He could see flashing lights beyond her steady, starlit glow. Yet he knew the Necromancer must not stand along against her, either. For Beorn said all of his people combined could not face the Necromancer. And one did not get to be called a necromancer without more than a little unpleasantness regarding animated corpses.
“Do not be a fool, Bilbo Baggins,” the hobbit told himself. “You could be of no use in such a struggle.”
Unfortunately, he had already experienced enough melees to know that small acts could have very large effects.
“You would only be in the way.”
Unless he put on his ring and was therefore invisible to friend and foe alike.
“You will be killed. You will never see your brother again, if you go that way. You will never find Thorin.”
This was very true. Even if he did manage to find the battle—and survive it—he would never make it back to the path. Sadly, that fact did not greatly alter the complexion of what he must do.
Abandoning his pack, except for the oak shield, Bilbo put on his ring and became invisible. The shield was too heavy for him to wield, of course, especially as he raced through the dark forest toward the black tower. Instead, he wore it across his back where it might at least provide him a little armor. Sting and the little gold ring were all he really needed.
Dol Guldur was strangely protected, with nothing at all barring the wide open front door. As lights flashed above and a man’s voice shook the stones with thunderous curses, Bilbo realized that there might have been defenses at some earlier time. Plucking up his courage, he dashed inside. The stones of the tower trembled again, mortar raining down from the spiral staircase. Reminding himself that he was no help to anyone standing about, he raced up those stairs to the top of the tower.
Atop the tower of Dol Guldur, a great battle raged. Who did Bilbo Baggins see fighting right in the thick of everything, but his old friends Gandalf and Lord Elrond. He could not have been more surprised to see his own brother! Alongside Gandalf and Elrond were three others, and against them were tall kings made of shadow, but these were not the Necromancer.
Bilbo saw the Necromancer. It was not a person, as he expected, but a great eye. A wheel of fire that spun about a dark center in which he could almost see a figure. But as Bilbo looked upon the eye—although he was invisible with the power of the ring—it looked at him.
At once, all the shadow kings wailed horribly, abandoning their individual fights and charging toward Bilbo. This made it very easy for Elrond and the rest to dispatch them, but Bilbo hardly noticed. The eye pulsed and thrummed as the Necromancer spoke directly to the hobbit.
”COME TO ME.” The words split Bilbo’s head open. He dared not obey, but one of his feet stepped forward of its own accord. ”COME TO ME. YOU WILL BE REWARDED. YOU WILL BE GIVEN DOMINION OVER ARMIES. YOU WILL BE GIVEN ALL THE KINGDOMS OF THE WORLD. BRING ME WHAT IS MINE.”
The ring on Bilbo’s finger burned hot, but the pain could not block out the voice. Instead, the ring seemed to amplify the Necromancer’s demands, pulling Bilbo’s hand toward that great wheel of fire.
Falling to his knees, Bilbo Baggins wrenched the thing off his finger. “You shall not have it!” he cried. “I did not come here to help you!” Then he cradled it, weeping with pain and fear, certain he was about to be killed.
Between him and the flaming eye of the Necromancer stepped an elven woman made of starlight. Her hair was as golden as the summer sun and her clothes were white silk that seemed to glow in the darkness like starlight. Lifting both of her hands, she pushed back the shadow. On her finger blazed a blue jewel brighter than the sky.
“Go back to the void!” she cried. “I abjure you! I cast you out!”
Tendrils of shadow wound around her, trying to get to Bilbo. The voice in his head grew louder and more demanding. ”THE RING. GIVE ME THE RING. GIVE ME THE RING AND BE REWARDED. GIVE ME THE RING AND BE HAPPY. GIVE ME THE RING AND LIVE. WITHHOLD IT AND I WILL NOT LET YOU DIE.”
Bowing over the burning ring, the little hobbit tried to guard it with the whole of his body.
“Begone!” the elven woman roared. “To the void! To nothingness! You are defeated!”
With a great burst of light, she pushed the pulsing eye away, and it was gone. The voice in Bilbo’s head went also, though the pain remained. The pain was so great that he could barely see the woman as she swooned, catching herself on Gandalf’s gallant arm.
Slowly, the other fighters gathered around. Bilbo saw that the two he did not know were both wizards, by their staffs and their wands. One was tremendously disheveled with all sorts of sticks, leaves, and unmentionable things in his hair. The other, however, wore white like the lady and was very well kept.
Closing his eyes against the pain, Bilbo heard the lady speak in a soft, almost defeated tone. “He is not gone. This was a feint. It was only ever meant as a feint. He intended to let us think him defeated and go somewhere else to gain strength. At the end, I saw his true power. Had he shown it from the first, more than one of our number would have fallen here today.”
“Mordor, I expect.” Gandalf sounded truly exhausted. “In that land has he ever been able to grow his armies and work his foul experiments.”
“Yes,” said Elrond. “But this was a great victory. Do not lose sight of that! For in the end, he showed his true power. And his true desire. Bilbo Baggins! What a tale you must have to tell! How did you come to be in this place and in possession of such a thing?”
If Bilbo did not feel so very indebted to Lord Elrond for all of his earlier help and hospitality, he might have continued to lie on the floor cooling his temple against the stone. The hobbit was that out of sorts after the voice in his head. Nevertheless, he respected the elf greatly, so he rose to his feet.
The ring no longer burned his hand, but it was very heavy in his palm.
Bilbo bowed. “My apologies, Lord Elrond. Gandalf. Lady. Truly, I had no idea. No idea at all. I—well, I thought I might be able to help. Foolish of me. Quite stupid. Thank you for—for saving me. I never imagined. No, I never imagined anything like that. I thought, well. I mean, goblins. Orcs. I might have. Well, I heard the fighting, and the Quenya. Pride. Damnable pride, that was it, and please believe I have learnt my lesson. No place for a hobbit in a battle like that. No place at all.”
“You are babbling, Bilbo,” Gandalf said, but not unkindly.
The white wizard stepped forward. “The Ring,” he said. “Give it to me.”
His voice sounded very like the Necromancer’s to Bilbo, pulling as it did on the hobbit’s already aching head.
“Because it is not for you, descendent of rats! On your belly before your betters, little fool. Give me the Ring! It does not belong with a worm of a halfling, grubbing about in his little hole, licking the dirt and thinking nothing of the wider world. That Ring is the cornerstone of the world. It is power. It is precious. It is not yours. You will give it to me now!”
Lightning crackled between the white wizard’s fingertips, and Bilbo feared something truly dreadful would happen. Fortunately, the brown wizard whacked the white one very hard in the back of the head with his knotty staff. This seemed to encourage the white wizard to have a little nap there on the flagstones. Bilbo swallowed hard in relief.
Looking down at the heavy Ring, Bilbo saw that the beautiful gold band now had writing encircling it. The runes were elvish, but he did not understand the language they inscribed. He looked up at Gandalf.
“It does seem to be very dangerous,” he said. “In truth, I would be glad to be rid of it. Will you take it?”
In so saying, he held his hand out to his old friend.
The gray wizard looked at the Ring for a long, long time. Eventually, he said, “No. Thank you, Bilbo, but I dare not. Your offer is a generous one, but such a thing is not meant for one of my kind. I would be sure to use it, and through me it would work terrible mischief.”
“Oh.” As his head still hurt and he did not quite understand this refusal, the hobbit offered the Ring next to Lord Elrond. “Perhaps it would be safe in Rivendell? You could make sure that awful Necromancer does not get it.”
Lord Elrond smiled sadly at Bilbo. “I fear even in Rivendell, such a thing would not be possible. But this is not the place to discuss such matters.” He looked at the beautiful elf woman. “Lorien is nearest.”
“And Lorien will make you welcome,” she said.
Bilbo blinked. He did not even know her name. But she was very beautiful, and she had been the one to send the Necromancer away. “Very well,” he said, holding the Ring up to her. “You may certainly have it for this Lorien place, if Elrond and Gandalf both vouch for you.”
Her bright blue eyes widened in surprise and she laughed, throwing her head back in a sweet merriment which brightened all the dark corners of the black tower.
“For Lorien! For Lorien I would take it, and Lorien would grow strong indeed.” Slowly, her voice grew deeper and strangely terrible. “In the place of deserts and black lands you would have a golden forest, beautiful and awful in its absolute perfection, watered by the blood of any who did not bow to my will. All shall love and all shall lose!” She seemed to grow as she spoke, glowing with green light that filtered down through the trees of Mirkwood. Then, that light went out.
“No.” She shrank, and once again only starlight lit her eyes. “No, I will not take it either. Lorien may fade, and beauty may leave these lands, but I will not lead my people down that dark road.”
The hobbit looked at the only remaining member of their council, the ratty man who definitely had bird droppings in his hair. No way was Bilbo Baggins going to entrust more than a penny to such a person.
“Bilbo,” Gandalf said gently, “I am afraid you must carry the Ring for now. I understand that it frightens you. Believe it or not, that is a very good thing! I do not ask you to put it on ever again, indeed, I should advise quite strongly against it. You only have to carry it, and come along with us to Lorien. We shall be safe there, and able to have a little talk about how best to proceed.”
“Absolutely not,” Bilbo said sharply.
“Master Baggins,” Lord Elrond began, but Bilbo raised a hand very rudely.
“I am going to Erebor,” the hobbit said. “Stepping off the road to assist a Lady in trouble is one thing, but I have no intention of going to Lorien, or any place other than Erebor. My friends are waiting.”
“Bilbo,” Gandalf said. “They are not.”
Which, of course, Bilbo had known all along must be true. They would not leave him, otherwise.
“Don’t you think I know that? Kili! My poor brother, thinking I’m dead all this time just because my legs are so damnably short that I can’t run to keep up with a party of dwarves. And Thorin! We are to be married, but he’s off grieving, surrounded by a strong bunch of good-looking fellows, thinking he’s free of his promise. Why, I am not going to allow this state of affairs to continue one second longer than it must! I am going to Erebor! Thorin may have the Ring for a wedding band.”
Lord Elrond drew in a short, sharp breath. “To say such a thing in this place is dangerous, Bilbo Baggins. Even now, we must be sure someone is listening. Yea, I feel the threads of fate knotting. The Ring will go to Erebor. Darker things will follow it.”
“Listen,” Bilbo said, “I am sure I don’t want that. All of this about the Ring and the Necromancer does seem dreadfully important. It just, well, it isn’t as important to me, don’t you know. I would certainly like to help you, and you may have the Ring if you like, though it is properly mine.”
“Yours?” Gandalf raised an eyebrow sharply. “How so?”
“I won it in a game of riddles,” the hobbit said.
“Try again.” The lady had a very friendly smile, of the sort that made her very difficult to lie to.
Bilbo sighed. “Oh, very well, I found it in the goblin tunnels. But I did win a game of riddles against the previous owner shortly thereafter. So it is almost as good.”
“And what happened to the owner?” Gandalf’s voice was rather stern. As though the provenance of such an artifact was of great importance. And perhaps it was. Bilbo would quite willingly admit that he had no real understanding of magic.
“Gollum? Well, yes, we did disagree a bit about whether or not my victory was entirely on the up and up. So he tried to catch me and eat me, which should tell you exactly what sort of person he was. I do not feel at all guilty for not giving him his property back, though I should have been glad to do so if he had shown me the way out of the tunnels as he promised.”
“Where is he now?” Gandalf demanded.
Bilbo was taken aback by the force in the wizard’s demeanor. “I imagine he went back to that horrid lake under the goblin tunnels.”
“Alive?” the wizard asked.
“What do you take me for,” Bilbo cried. “Of course I did not murder him!”
At once, Gandalf softened toward Bilbo and said gruffly, “I had to be sure,” which was as close to an apology as he was likely to give.
“I never!” Bilbo was more perturbed by this failure of manners than he was by anything else which had taken place so far. In fact, the little hobbit was rapidly approaching the limits of his strength. He felt that he should weep or faint or do something terribly drastic very soon.
The Lady turned to Lord Elrond and said, “Introduce us.”
Elrond raised an eyebrow at her.
“We are all being very rude,” she said. “The rules of civility exist for a reason.”
Lord Elrond gave a very formal half bow. “Bilbo Baggins,” he said, “Please allow me to present the Lady Galadriel of Lothlorien, sometimes called the Golden Wood. Here also is Radagast the Brown, a member of Gandalf’s order who is most concerned with the care of animals and the natural order of things. I cannot properly introduce Saruman the White, who fell to the temptation of the Ring, but I would apologize for any distress he caused you. Pray, forgive him.”
These familiar, polite words had a very soothing effect upon the distressed hobbit. Returning Lord Elrond’s bow, he bowed also to the Lady Galadriel and Radagast. “I am very pleased to meet you both,” he said. “Bilbo Baggins, at your service.”
“But not enough to come to Lorien,” Radagast observed dryly.
“No,” said Bilbo succinctly.
“Then I shall have to see you to Erebor,” Gandalf said. “Though I expect it will be tremendous trouble.”