In those days, the lands south of the River Running were called the Brown Lands, for nothing grew there. At first, Bilbo attributed this to the yellow grass, crisp with frost, which was so long and curling that it tripped up everyone save Legolas. No road went through those lands, and so the companions crossed fields and rolling moors simply by heading south. After a few days of walking, even the grass dried up and vanished. Then, Bilbo truly understood the nature of the Brown Lands, which were arid desert with only the barest hint of scrub brush.
Often, Beorn would heft Bilbo onto his shoulder. Since he was also carrying the better part of their supplies, the hobbit always protested. He was also always secretly grateful that Beorn paid no mind to his token objections. For the companions traveled at a much quicker pace than a hobbit would by himself, and Bilbo tired far sooner than his long legged companions. Although it pained him to be a burden, the hobbit was intelligent enough to know that anything which sped their journey was worth his personal discomfort.
“Why are these lands so brown?” Bilbo asked as they stopped by a merry little brook babbling incongruously over the rocks. “There is water enough, and they are not particularly warm.”
“Once, they were the greenest garden in all of Middle Earth,” Gandalf said. “Greater in splendor than even the Shire, every fruit and flower ever to grow blossomed in these lands. Here in days of old walked the Ena, and in their footsteps all was green. They tended to their gardens with a care you would know well, Bilbo Baggins, but they were not like hobbits. Reflected in them was the spirit of their charges. When the War of the Last Alliance came to these lands in the Second Age of the world, the Ena vanished. Sauron burned the land ahead of the Alliance, that there might be no provision for them as they approached his gate. Some say the Ena burned as well.”
“I have never thought it so,” Legolas said. “Well do I know the tales of the Ena and the Ena-husbands hidden in their trees. Such legends of happier times are shared freely in the Greenwood. Our people say the Ena fled Sauron and dwell even now near the Sea of Rhûn.”
“So say many,” Gandalf agreed, “but I have been to the Sea of Rhûn, and met many people there. I did not meet the Ena.”
Legolas sighed, and for some time the group plodded over the rocky ground without speaking. Bilbo thought it was strangely foresighted, or at least serendipitous, that Sauron had destroyed what provisions a green land might provide his enemies so many centuries ago. Although the land provided water enough, their packs grew lighter every day with no way to replenish the food within. Already, the fresh bread and fruit given them by the Lakemen was gone. Smoked fish, dried oats, and cram remained, but most nights the companions chose not to build a fire, so there was no way to cook the oats.
Uncharacteristically, Beorn was the one to break the silence. “I know no Ena. My grandmother spoke of Flower Women.”
“What stories did your people tell?” Bilbo asked eagerly.
Beorn’s cheeks reddened a little in late afternoon sunlight, but he consented to share.
“Bright was the morning of the world
when laughing, the Green Lady blessed
all the trees and flowers and plants
so too laughed the trees, and became men
so too laughed the flowers, becoming women
all laughed together, in the morning of the world
flowers turned to fruit
children came of tree and flower
choosing in their own time
forest or field
fruit or seed
farm or wilderness
flower or tree
That was the morning of the world
when the Flower Women walked
when the Tree Men sang
when the Green Lady did not weep
But weeping came
burning the gardens of the Flower Women
The Shadow said: Grow for me
grow in my lands
you will not be free, but you will not burn
But they would burn
Gardens cannot blossom in the darkness
weeping, they chose to burn
and the shadow was cruel
The Flower Women burn forever
until they will serve
they will never serve
Listen my child and learn:
Sometimes it is better to burn.”
“Long has it been since last I heard a song of the North-men,” Gandalf said quietly. “Thank you, Beorn.”
“Yes,” Bilbo agreed. “That was very beautiful. Only, it’s all so terribly sad.”
Beorn hummed. “The Flower Women are gone. The land is scarred. It is sad. Truth is sad.”
“And necessary.” Bilbo watched a little bit of scrub brush blow across the barren dirt, bouncing off a large boulder and rolling away toward the setting sun. The chain around his neck grew heavy, biting into his skin. “People ought to be allowed to live as they like. The Flower Women had a right to keep their gardens in their own land. Erebor certainly should not have been forced to choose between bending a knee to evil and that terrible slaughter. If a few folk have to burn to keep evil from spreading, I suppose that is the right of fate.”
“Perhaps only one to burn?” Gandalf stopped walking, and his eyes were sharp, almost angry. “Bilbo Baggins—”
Legolas shot an arrow into the twilight. “Aiya,” he cried, “We are under attack.” Three more arrows followed the first in quick succession.
Hearing the thunder of hoof-beats against the dirt, Bilbo drew Sting. To his surprise, it did not glow blue in the half light of sunset.
Beorn shucked his shirt as his hair grew into fur, sliding down his back in swift transformation. His hands paused at his trousers, and he reversed the change, becoming fully man once more. “That is no enemy,” he said sternly.
Out of the dim mists came a wild boar, as tall as Gimli, with cruelly pointed tusks. From one eye sprouted an arrow, and the other gleamed sunset-red with fury. Legolas’s other arrows stuck in its hide, but seemed to do it no hurt. Charging the elf, the massive beast would have gored him, save he was able to flip dexterously up on the rocks and out of reach.
Turning next to Bilbo, the boar tried to rend him with a tusk as long as Sting. It would have succeeded, save the strong arms which plucked the hobbit up and away at the very last second. “No,” Beorn said sternly, as though scolding a child.
Another arrow pierced the boar’s cheek, but that only seemed to enrage it further.
“Stop,” the big man shouted. “Stop now. There is no need to fight.”
Pawing the dirt, the boar turned its slavering mouth toward Gimli. The dwarf stood his ground, ax at the ready. When the beast charged, the dwarf stepped nimbly to one side then severed its head from its neck with a single, mighty blow. Blood spattered against the dwarf’s smooth, hairless chin. The body of the boar fell into slowly pooling blood.
Beorn keened as though he himself had been wounded. “No need,” he repeated. Kneeling beside the boar, he placed a hand upon its side. Then he looked up at Legolas with real anger. “He is not evil. This is his home. He could have helped us. If not, there was no need to kill. This is his home. Not ours.”
“The pig was charging us in the darkness,” the elf said coolly. “I have no doubt that he has set upon travelers before, and triumphed to their detriment. That scar upon his rump is old, and speaks of a man’s sword.”
“Aye,” Gimli agreed. “A boar will eat a dwarf, if he’s big enough. This fellow is surely big enough.”
“You had no right,” Beorn repeated. “He was not evil.”
Gandalf stepped between the giant man and the elf. “What is done is done,” the wizard said. “And perhaps it is for the best. I cannot be the only one to notice that our provisions dwindle. Meat such as this will extend them greatly.”
Beorn looked utterly appalled. “You cannot.”
But it turned out that Legolas certainly could skin and butcher a pig with his long knives. A bit of scrub brush was all it took to build a fire capable of roasting the hams, frying some bacon, and grilling the loin. The scents teased at Bilbo’s taste buds, promising the first meal since Laketown that would be worth eating.
Legolas offered the first plate to Beorn. Bilbo was not sure if it was a challenge or a gesture of peace. Beorn certainly took it as the first.
“I will not eat your victim,” the bear man snarled.
Nodding in acceptance, the elf offered the same plate to Bilbo.
A voice in the hobbit’s mind whispered that they could not afford to be picky. Proud insistence bloomed warm against his breast. On a mission through inhospitable lands, the companions must eat. Beorn must eat, and Bilbo must make him do so. That was the duty of a leader. What was one pig’s life in service to the greater good? Beorn must be strong to protect Bilbo, and so he must be well fed. It would be easy enough to make him eat. His will existed to serve Bilbo’s cause. Other bears ate meat.
Since these were obviously all thoughts that no Baggins would ever have, Bilbo put them from his mind easily. Remembering the way Kili used to complain about second breakfast when they were children, wanting to play instead of eat, the hobbit reminded himself that different folk needed different things. Dwarves did not eat as often as hobbits, on the whole, and that was only the simplest discrepancy to understand. Beorn’s requirements were more complex, and they were just as important. Kili’s smile flashed in memory, gap-toothed and childish. How very happy it made Kili on those rare occasions when Bilbo would forego his own elevenses to play outside for another hour. Sometimes companionship was more important than a growling belly.
With a tremulous smile, the hobbit declined the plate. “Oh, none for me either, thanks.” The Ring cooled beneath his shirt.
Everyone looked at him in surprise. Gandalf frowned. “Bilbo, much as I respect Beorn’s philosophy, you must keep up your strength. You are not a vegetarian.”
“No,” Bilbo agreed. “I like ham and eggs as much as the next hobbit. Perhaps even more, but tonight I think I’ll refrain. Beorn and I can do up some oatmeal very nicely, I think, since we’ve a fire.”
Beorn grunted. Then he said, “You can eat. You did not kill.”
“With you convinced that all of this was home invasion and murder?” Bilbo laughed uncomfortably. “No thank you. I do think it’s good not to let the meat go to waste,” he added quickly. “I mean, dead is dead and bacon is bacon. You three should eat up. But, well, I’ve always been suggestible, and I don’t think I could stomach it.”
Gandalf’s eyes narrowed. “Suggestible indeed, Bilbo Baggins.” The wizard took a big, obvious bite of his own ham. “You will change your tune after a few more days of walking, but the meat will not be such a treat then.”
In fact, Bilbo did not change his mind even after a week, though his mouth watered with envy every time he saw Gimli savoring some of the salted pork. Perhaps his obvious desire spiced the meat a little for the elf and the dwarf, for the pair took to complimenting it whenever they ate and never seemed to grow weary of the repetitive meal. The rewards for virtue were very few. Bilbo dreamed of Thorin every night. More often than not, the dwarf was making his husband a bacon sandwich.
The rewards for friendship were innumerable. If anything, Beorn looked upon Bilbo with more fondness than ever before. The skinchanger had a knack for finding little mushrooms along the streams and brooks that brought water through the Brown Lands. These he shared with the hobbit alone, and mushroom porridge was a great improvement over simple oatmeal. More plentiful were the smiles the giant shared, and the songs. By Bilbo’s sacrifice, he found the grace to forgive the others, and he did not draw away from the group.
Legolas even apologized to Beorn by not shooting down a black swan which wheeled overhead until the skinchanger confirmed that it was, in fact, a spy of Sauron and no natural creature, though it wheeled low indeed before any eyes but elven ones could spot it.
As the rocks grew into boulders and mountains loomed before them like jagged teeth, the companions gathered together. They were not afraid.