Shafts of sunlight pierced through the grey clouds, sparkling upon the icy water of Long Lake. At a distance, all looked placid and calm, but a cold wind whipped harshly against Bilbo’s cheeks. Above, black sails billowed. The deck of the ship creaked alarmingly as they skipped along the surface of the water, bouncing like a stone.
Once, in Buckland, Bilbo’s cousins teamed up with Kili to force the hobbit into a rowboat. It had been an anxious, uncomfortable hour, but it was nothing compared to the way the sailboat rocked and swayed. Part of him was sure they would tip into the lake at any moment, but Legolas and Gandalf seemed to know their business. Leaving them to it, Bilbo lay down in the center of the deck where the dips and bobs were least noticeable.
Gimli sat beside him. “Poorly designed contraption, isn’t it? Dratted uncomfortable, too.”
Smiling weakly, Bilbo agreed. “I have never been fond of boats. What can be the point, really? A fellow may fish perfectly well from the water’s edge.”
“Aye, that you can, Sire. So maybe we should be heading back soon. Smart to get out on the lake away from the battle. Very safe. But it seems like that’s all breaking up now.”
For the first time, Bilbo really looked at Gimli. Although he had a great, wild mane of fiery red hair like his father, he had no beard at all. Little curling muttonchops trailed down from his ears like those which might be worn by a Stoorish hobbit, but he did not even have the hints of stubble Kili proudly sported. He was young. Younger than Kili.
Sitting up, Bilbo patted his knee. “We’ll drop you off at the far side of the lake, my boy. Perhaps Beorn will be kind enough to see you home. You do not know the journey I am undertaking, and you cannot possibly be prepared for it.”
Gimli’s jaw set. Beard or no, he looked very like his father. “I’m to guard you.”
Behind Bilbo, Beorn stretched, rising up on his hind legs. Receding fur became hair. Muzzle shrank into a nose. Sharp claws grew into strong fingers. So the bear shifted into a man. Surprisingly, this change in posture did not materially affect the position of the boat in the water. Bilbo wondered a bit at that, since the giant man was somewhat smaller than the massive bear. Then, he thought of pumpkins much larger than goats which nevertheless weighed quite the same when placed on the measure at the Hobbiton Free Fair. After that, he considered the burden of the Ring, pulling on the chain about his neck like a lodestone in the presence of the Witch-king, and how it weighed next to nothing now that he was gone. Some things in the world were beyond a hobbit’s understanding.
Bilbo put a hand to his breast, reassuring himself that the Ring had not escaped.
“Once, I sent you alone into danger, little bunny,” Beorn said. “Now, I am a coward.”
“I am a coward,” the skinchanger repeated, cutting short Bilbo’s objection. “When you are home with your Thorin, I will be one no longer.”
“Beorn.” Bilbo’s heart broke. “I cannot go home. It is as I said upon the battlefield: danger dogs my steps. If I go to Erebor, another army will soon follow me.”
“I think it no bad thing to add two such doughty warriors to our company,” Gandalf said. Tying off the rope in his hands, he seemed to take them in all at once, from Legolas at the prow to Beorn at the stern. “Truly, it is a wonder that a group so quickly formed in battle happens to have one of each of the free peoples of Middle Earth. Such a thing cannot be chance. No more than a hobbit beneath the Misty Mountains can be chance. Each of us has been chosen for this task, Bilbo Baggins. Just as you were.”
Sick at heart, Bilbo flopped backward to the wooden deck. “I did not ask to be chosen.”
“No, you did not,” Gandalf said. “But as you were going to fulfill the duty without aid, I do not see why you would complain about it to me.”
“Mithrandir.” Prince Legolas spoke with great respect, although part of his attention was still on the sail and the lake ahead. “Will you tell us now of this great deed? My father understood it, but I do not. To be of aid, I would know our ends.”
Looking up at the grey sky, Bilbo wondered why no rain fell. Occasionally, water sprayed up from the side of the boat to soak his traveling cloak, but the clouds did not break. Some clouds only blotted out the sun without doing anything useful like watering the garden. High overhead, he saw a flock of ducks. Against the grey, they had no coloring, but from their rapid wing beats he knew them to be waterfowl. Winging away from the coming cold, ducks had no care for war or darkness. Hunters, hawks, and bad weather were all a duck knew to be wary of. Despite those dangers, every year ducks made a circuit of the world. Every autumn saw them go, and every spring saw them return.
“Bilbo.” From the tone of Gandalf’s voice, the hobbit knew it was not the first time his name had been said.
“Sorry.” Bilbo sat up. “What was that?”
“Let our companions see the Ring.”
Drawing it forth from beneath his traveling cloak, Bilbo felt the Ring grow heavy in his hand. Chain bit into the hobbit’s palm as the Ring whispered to his companions, daring them to steal what was so very precious and powerful. Quickly, Bilbo stuffed it back beneath his shirt.
“This vile thing which burned the hand of Frar—greatest goldsmith in a mountain of goldsmiths—and drove him mad, we shall destroy,” said Gimli.
Bilbo saw Legolas and the others staring at Gimli with something akin to amazement.
“Yes,” the hobbit said. “You have seen it before, Gimli. You know what it can do. You know why I must destroy it. So too, you must understand why it would be best for me to go alone.”
“Nay, Sire,” said the young dwarf. “Allow me to set aside all of the respect and love in my heart to disagree with you but once. In all other things, you shall command me, for you are husband to my king and I am your servant. In this, however, I must beg to remind you of the danger of this errand. To enter the Black Land is to risk death. Loath am I to admit that such a failure in my duty could occur! My greatest hope is that I should give my own life to prevent that calamity. Even so, we must admit the possibility, with all the forces of darkness arrayed between our small company and the Cracks of Doom. If you should fall, there must be another at hand to finish the journey.”
“From the voice of youth I hear great wisdom,” Legolas cried. “Let us all swear together to see this errand done and the Ring cast into fire, yea though it costs our lives to do it.”
But Beorn said, “No. I will protect the hobbit. I will not touch the Ring.”
So too, Gandalf refused the very idea of taking up the Ring if Bilbo should fall. In fact, he lectured the elf and dwarf quite sternly for the thought. “Take care to search now your hearts to see whence your desire for the task comes. If it be only that glory should fall to you instead of Bilbo, the folly of youth may be forgiven. Yet if you find a desire to hold the Ring in your possession, better you leave us now than betray our cause later for such lust.”
Greatly abashed, Legolas and Gimli both apologized. Leaving all mention of the Ring aside, they swore up and down to die in Bilbo’s defense ere thinking of the greater quest. This, in turn, annoyed the hobbit.
“Unless you can all swear to take no injury in this adventure at all, I shall leave you behind!”
Naturally, the others laughed at this, which put him in a very ill humor. Between his mood and the rocking of the boat, he entirely ignored Gandalf’s suggestion of tea time. After the battle and nearly an hour of sailing, the others were all happy to help themselves to Bilbo’s provisions, but the hobbit himself took nothing.
This, at least, convinced Gandalf that he was not simply pouting. Producing a flask from beneath his cloak, the wizard offered it to Bilbo. When opened, the scent of fruit and flowers briefly cleared his nose of smoke and death, overwhelming even the smell of fish and weeds which rose on the wind from the lake.
“That is the miruvor of Rivendell, a cordial of great potency,” Legolas said, staring at the flask.
“I do not think I could stomach strong liquor just now,” said the hobbit, though he wished it were otherwise.
“Try,” Gandalf ordered.
Thus pressed, the hobbit took a small sip. Warmth flooded his body, soothing his lurching belly and calming his nerves. Bilbo scowled at the flask.
“I was rather enjoying my foul mood,” he said.
“I know.” The wizard smiled.
“I was only married just yesterday. I can be in a snit about having to go so soon.”
“You can.” Gandalf’s face was not entirely devoid of compassion.
“And it would serve you right for making us sail if those boats behind you were full of pirates.”
At once, Bilbo’s four companions leapt into action. Legolas, shamed to have a hobbit spot what he himself was too distracted to see, quickly reassured them all.
“They are the boats of the Lakemen from Esgaroth. We near that place now, and it is not strange that those folk should come out to challenge us.”
Gimli put away his ax and Beorn paused in the act of growing fur to reverse the transition. Gandalf, however, did not lower his staff.
“I wonder they challenge us now when they did not challenge the pirates as they came to make war upon Erebor,” Bilbo grumbled. Soon, he had cause to regret those words.
As the boats drew nigh, BIlbo saw many scratches, splinters, and burn marks upon the wooden hulls. These were not ships of war, but barges and fishing boats. Meant for moving barrels and hauling fish, the boats of Esgaroth bore no weapons. The men carried long hooks and fishing spears, but they too were much the worse for wear. Many sported bandages and mean looks.
When Legolas called out to them, those looks faded and the weapons fell away. Elves of the Greenwood were no pirates. Though the Lakemen were confused to find one upon the ship of the enemies who had so recently passed by their village with such cruelty, they accepted Legolas’s explanation of an important errand down the river whence the pirates came. Drawing up alongside the faster craft, they asked for news of the battle. As Gandalf told them Thorin was now king in Erebor, Bilbo shrank deeper into his cloak.
“What other tale of the battle can you tell us?” one of the Lakemen asked.
“Only my own,” said Gimli, “which is thirty-eight orcs cut down by my ax.”
“Thirty-eight!” cried the man. “Surely not! For you are little Gimli, Gloin’s son, who plays Dragons-and-Villagers with my children whenever he comes to trade.”
“Aye, I am he. More, I would play with thy sweet children even now and count it a pleasure, Ivor. That changes not the truth, which is that I come victorious from great battle. Straight from that great battle, if you please, and unprepared for the journey which I now undertake. You see that one of our number is not even clothed due to the circumstances of our departure. If Laketown could supply us now, I would give you a letter to bring my father for generous compensation. Indeed, since I did not see him before going, he will likely reward you handsomely merely for news that I am well.”
Happy to oblige, especially given the honor in which they held Gloin of the Company, the Lakemen brought them many things. Some, like trousers for Beorn, a tinder box for Gimli, additional rope for the boat, and stores of smoked fish, were necessary. Others, like a shirt for Beorn, casks of ale, small tools, and a strange food called cram, were unasked for, but might later be appreciated. Finally, there were some things like boat hooks and fishing nets which seemed entirely unnecessary, yet refusing the kind Lakemen would be churlish. Gimli took down a careful accounting of each item in a letter to his father.
“Normally, I would not deliver this. A good meal and help on your way is little enough to share with a friend,” said Ivor, “but I think perhaps after the dangers of the last day, your father will be glad of news.”
“That he will,” Gimli agreed. “And I thank you for carrying it to him.”
Bilbo considered writing a letter of his own to be carried back to the mountain, but he decided against it. There could be no point in long farewells, or expressing the desire not to be followed. Likely, Kili would follow. Hopefully, Thorin would put a stop to that. Just as Thorin would not venture after Bilbo. A king could not leave his mountain, and with Thorin, duty always came first. That was a great comfort, but it made any letter full of flowery abjurations of assistance disingenuous. Thorin would not come. Bilbo would not pretend to believe he might. If only Thorin would keep Kili safe, the hobbit wished for nothing further.
“Will you not stop the night in Laketown?” Ivor asked. “We are happy enough to ferry supplies out in this way that you need not pause your journey, but there are barely two hours of light left for sailing. Surely a bed in our town and an early start would serve you better than another hour of travel only to sleep on a muddy bank.”
“Nay,” said Legolas. “We shall journey through the night. Elven eyes see as well by starlight as by sun. The river holds no perils for us, save only those enemies we might meet along our way.”
“Then I hope you meet them not.”
“Ah, but if we do, the ax of Gimli the dwarf shall save us.” Those elven eyes of Legolas’s sparkled with some mischief. “Thirty-eight is a tale well told.”
“It is, indeed!” The men all agreed, and soon there came a parting of ways as the Long Lake narrowed into a rushing river.
With the miruvor still settling his stomach, Bilbo could not blame his discomfort at the bouncing rapids on sickness. Instead, he was forced to own his fear at the pace, depth, and breadth of the water. Even if he could swim, he could never swim in such speeding water. And as he could not swim, if the water were as calm as a lake, he would never make it to the bank. Beorn put a comforting hand on the hobbit’s back and offered him a cup of their newly acquired ale.
“Then don’t fall in.”
This was very sensible advice, and the hobbit was so upset with Beorn for giving it that he became quite cruel. “Who exactly is looking after your friends while you are off on this adventure, sir?”
“The sheep can hardly pump water from the well themselves,” Bilbo said. “And the ponies will soon be wanting hay with winter on the way.”
“My other friends,” said Beorn. “A farmer’s daughter will come. I spoke to her.”
“Oh?” Bilbo’s nose twitched, sensing a story. “Does she have a name?”
“What’s she like, Inge?”
Bilbo laughed happily. “High praise indeed! I see that she must be a great friend of yours, Beorn, and I suspect her of a good nature as well. I should very much like to meet her one day.”
Beorn did not blush, but it seemed to be a near thing. “Yes,” he said. “She is kind. Birds like her.”
“And there can be no recommendation as high as that,” Bilbo agreed. Then, he sighed. “Perhaps you should go home to her.”
“I will,” Beorn said. “After.”
“After.” Looking back, Bilbo could only see the very peak of the Lonely Mountain dropping into the Long Lake. The bouncing river bore them too swiftly away.
That night, Bilbo slept very fitfully, wrapped in his brown cloak and curled against the fur of a great bear. Every so often, he would open his eyes, hearing the laughter of the Witch-king, only to see calmly blinking stars. The noise proved to be the rushing river and, once, Legolas singing softly. So the hobbit tried to sleep.
Waking in truth, sometime shortly after dawn, Bilbo saw leaves above as they passed beneath the eaves of a forest.
“The Greenwood,” said Legolas. “The Celduin visits my home for a short while here.”
“Yes.” Drawing the little gilded map from his pocket, Bilbo saw that they were very near the Old Forest Road. “Yet if that is so, it took Gandalf and I five days on horseback to cross the distance we managed in a single night!”
“You may not enjoy sailing, Bilbo Baggins,” the wizard said, “but under Legolas’s practiced hand, we are managing seven knots, nearly eight on some stretches of the river. A horse might be faster over a short distance, but a boat does not neet to rest or water. What we did in a day with a horse, we do in four hours upon the river.”
“A pity, then, that the River Running cannot race all the way to Mordor,” Gimli said.
“A pity indeed,” Gandalf agreed, “but another day on the water will save us much walking.”
And so, breakfasting on smoked fish and cold potatoes from Laketown, the continued. As it turned out, travel by boat was just as dull as traveling silently on horseback. At least, it should have been without Legolas to sing, Gandalf to smoke, and Gimli to talk. The young dwarf was a very good conversationalist, especially for one of his years, and far more educated than Bilbo expected.
“It is all my cousin Balin’s doing,” Gimli confided, “from the pointed turns of my runes to the way I wield an ax. He made a hobby of me from the first. Says that nobles just sitting around courts need hobbies now and again, especially as he has no intention of children of his own.”
“Even the ax?” Bilbo was somewhat surprised. “Surely studying with Dwalin would be more useful there.”
But Gimli said, “Nay. I have been privileged with a lesson from Captain Dwalin upon occasion, and even your honored husband once or twice, but Balin is my teacher. No matter how much he complains about old bones, I will have no other.”
“Is that wise? Could not a more dexterous master teach you more?”
Gimli laughed. “So my own father has said, and many times too! Sadly, I have not the gift granted so many of Durin’s Folk: the great strength which comes in battle through anger or wounds.”
“That is no great loss,” Gandalf observed. Until that moment, he watched the trees warily, but Gimli’s words drew his attention. “With such strength comes a loss of intellect and control. Better to keep your wits than to fight with abandon.”
“Whether that may be or no,” Gimli said, “I shall never equal my great kinfolk in style or strength. So I must have some wit, and my cousin Balin is the most equipped to teach it to me. He is a legendary warrior among my people, you know, and very wise.”
“Indeed I do,” Bilbo agreed warmly. “Many were the books and conversations we shared during our winter in the Shire.”
“I beg you to tell me of them, that I might learn from you as I have done from my cousin.”
Very much aware that Gimli was trying to cheer him up, Bilbo nevertheless gave himself over to a pleasant discussion with the silver tongued young dwarf. From literature, they passed easily on to music, art, and, quite suddenly, birds. A raven landed on the prow of the ship.
The note on its leg was perfectly simple. Just three words. “Bilbo, come home.” Home was Erebor now. That was indisputable, after a wedding. But home had never been a place to bring troubles. Troubles were for Bree or to be hidden away in garden sheds. Home was a place to protect. To keep pure.
Bilbo wrote, “I will,” on the back of the note, and sent the raven away once more.
After that, the little fellowship sailed in silence.