“We will camp here tonight,” Gandalf declared. It was as pretty as any spot in the Brown Lands could be, with a lively stream flowing over the rocks allowing them all to pretend that the desolate place was not completely void of activity. Bilbo was as happy as anyone to pretend a great many things.
Even so, “There are two hours of daylight left,” Legolas objected. “We could make it to the mountains in that time. Perhaps even begin the climb toward your secret path.”
“We could,” the wizard agreed. “That is why we should camp. This may be the last drinkable water we encounter on this journey. We should all partake of as much as we can tonight, rest, drink again in the morning, and fill the extra waterskins. Tomorrow, we will need to begin rationing.”
Legolas looked as though he might object, but Gimli said, “Very wise, Gandalf! Dwarves can walk to the ends of the world, but that is because we know when to rest.” Tossing down his pack, he pulled off his boots and went downstream a ways to bathe his feet. Breathing in relief, Bilbo left his own pack besides Gimli’s. It did not weigh very much anymore, mostly being just his handkerchiefs and a few empty waterskins. Over their long trek through the Brown Lands, Bilbo’s heavier possessions had migrated one at a time into other packs. So putting down his pack did not decrease his burden.
Sitting beside Gimli, Bilbo bathed his feet in the cool water and looked up at the dark mountains. Like the Misty Mountains, Ered Lithui looked to the hobbit like a set of jagged teeth trying to bite the sky. More than that, the mountains reminded him of a strong and terrible fence. They were put there not to keep others out of Mordor, but to keep the evil within. Entering would not be impossible. Bilbo could get where he needed to go. That would have to be enough. After that, there would only be fire and gold.
The perfect ruby on his right cufflink caught the light. It was so beautiful. “Did I ever tell you about the time Thorin gave me these?”
“Yes,” Gimli said dryly. “You have.”
“Well, it was terribly romantic,” Bilbo said. “He called them ‘just a little present,’ you know, as though they were not worth as much as all the rest of my accessories put together. No one but my brother ever gave me a set before, either.”
“So you’ve said,” Gimli murmured.
“Nice cufflinks are a little expensive for a birthday present, and of course one generally wants big boxes to open at a party so everyone can see. Also, I suspect I have a bit of a reputation for being particular about my clothing. Likely, none of my cousins would dare to choose something for me. Though I have, of course, always been fond of Kili’s efforts.”
“You don’t say,” Gimli said.
“Still, it was ever such a surprise when Thorin gave me these. They’re so beautiful. Just look at the way those rubies catch the light! And gold, too! There is not much gold in the Shire; all my other cuff links are silver or brass. He must have brought it with him, and it was so thoughtful for him to shape them into flowers. I am very fond of flowers as a rule, but I don’t think they’re a common theme in dwarven jewelry necessarily.”
“Not necessarily,” Gimli agreed.
“They’re ever so meaningful, my cufflinks,” Bilbo said, admiring them openly. “I believe they mean a lot to Thorin, as well, given that he made them. I am very sure of it, in fact. He can be terribly helpful when I want to put them on. Of course, I can put on my own cufflinks. I’m not a child. But it’s one of those things that’s easier with two hands, and he has helped me do so on occasion. He always smiles when I want to wear these ones. It’s really—”
“Stop talking like you’re going to die!” Gimli shouted, his voice echoing along the rocks like thunder. Legolas, Beorn, and Gandalf looked at him in alarm, but the dwarf continued to yell. “Yes! Yes, if you fall, one of us will bring the blasted cufflinks back to King Thorin. You’ve made your wishes very clear! But you must stop planning for death. You must fight, Bilbo.”
The young dwarf ended on his feet, his cheeks as red as his hair, breathing as hard as any colt run through its paces.
Bilbo thought shouting in that desolate place was not a good idea. There might be orc patrols about, even on the wrong side of the mountains. There were certainly those black swans, and likely other spies of Sauron flying through the air. Gimli needed to calm down. He needed to fall in line. Bilbo was the husband of his king. Thus, the duty fell to him. Gimli needed to learn discipline.
“Sorry.” Shaking his head, the hobbit pressed a hand to his eyes. Once the late afternoon sunlight was blocked out, fire filled his vision, turning like a wheel within his mind. His back bent beneath the great weight about his neck. “Sorry,” he repeated. “What was I saying?”
“You were telling us about the most precious thing you carry,” Gandalf said gently.
“I never!” Bilbo cried, his own voice nearly as loud as Gimli’s had been. The chain bit deep into his shoulders.
“Yes, Bilbo, you were.” Gandalf’s eyes were infinitely sad within his patient face. “The most important thing you carry: your golden cufflinks.”
“Oh!” Looking down at his shirt sleeve, Bilbo was almost surprised to see them there, sparkling in the dying light. He tried to swallow around the great lump in his throat. “Nice, aren’t they?” he asked weakly.
“A jolly thoughtful present,” Beorn said carefully. The words were not his own. Bilbo recognized the phrase at once as one he himself had been repeating frequently over the last few days. It seemed better than focusing on other things.
“They really were,” he agreed, sounding strange and squeaky even in his own ears. “Match my tweed waistcoat perfectly, you know. Although I haven’t that one with me just now. But Thorin must have designed them with my wardrobe in mind. He made them himself. Jolly thoughtful. Have you seen the way they catch the light?”
“Show me again?” Beorn came to sit beside Bilbo, pointedly admiring the jewels.
Gimli sat once more on Bilbo’s left. His face was pale, and he looked unwell. For a moment, the hobbit wondered if he’d actually shouted at him. His throat was hoarse, so it seemed possible. He couldn’t quite remember. He remembered wanting to. Perhaps he had. Although they descended into winter and the weather was quite cool, the days seemed longer and longer as they traveled. His temper stretched thinner and thinner. The Ring about his neck grew ever heavier.
“Setting a gem into cast gold like that is no easy task,” Gimli said. “I have tried my hand at the art once or twice, and I can recognize a masterwork when I see one. Especially to make the pair identical in such a way! King Thorin is an admirable smith. Not one dwarf in a hundred within Erebor could make a piece so fine.”
“Oh, yes!” Bilbo agreed, stroking a finger along one of the cool, golden petals. “Thorin is so very clever.”
“Your husband,” Gimli said, “is an exceptional dwarf in all respects.”
“My husband.” If he’d spent the weeks after his marriage in the company of said husband, perhaps the word would not faze him so. Yet it delighted him to hear it, and amazed him even more to say it. “My husband made these for me,” he said, fixing his mind on the gems. “I don’t know where you got that silly idea about me dying, Gimli. I made him a promise in my own turn. I have to go back to him.”
“Aye,” the young dwarf agreed. “That you do.”
Much later, when the stars dappled the sky like diamonds and then faded into the mists of sleep, Bilbo heard Gimli’s voice again.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize.”
“I, too, thought it was the voice of fear,” said Legolas.
“Little bunny is no coward,” Beorn said. “Should be afraid more often than he is.”
“You know now.” Gandalf’s voice did not sound kind or stern. More than anything, he seemed weary. The hour was very late. “It will be worse within Mordor. Close to Barad Dur, it may be intolerable for him. Be prepared to help, as we can.” Which was a very nice thing to say. They couldn’t help, of course, no more than they could save him from the fire that filled his dreams, but as long as no one mentioned it directly and they all kept pretending nothing was happening, all might come out right.
Dawn cleared Bilbo’s mind, as it often did, and the mountains did not look nearly so foreboding. Drinking their fill, and then a little more for good measure, the companions filled their numerous waterskins. Neither black swans nor orc patrols troubled their morning stroll through the last of the Brown Lands. Looking back, Bilbo admired the stark landscape. Even desolate and devoid of all life, there was something beautiful about the scenery. Large golden rocks and rolling hills of barren dirt were painted pink and yellow by the sunrise. Compared to the stark grey cliffs which next they faced, the lands were as smooth as lemon cream.
There at the base of Ered Lithui, their luck ended. Like the Misty Mountains, the Ash Mountains sounded soft. The name evoked campfires, smooth bark, and shady leaves, not the sheer, impassible rises which stretched hundreds of feet straight up. For hours, the companions wandered in shadow and saw neither the path Gandalf sought nor the sun. Beorn lifted Bilbo onto his shoulder for a time, and to his shame the hobbit fell entirely asleep, only waking when the sun drifted toward its zenith, passing over the mountains into view.
“Did I miss it?” the hobbit asked, bleary after his short, dreamless sleep in the sun.
“No.” Beorn patted Bilbo’s back gently. “Sleep more. We did not find the path.”
Laughing to stifle a yawn, the hobbit squirmed his way down to the ground once more. “You are too kind, my friend, but I will walk. I can carry my own weight.”
“Yes,” Beorn agreed. “But this walk is slow. Your weight is little. Rather carry you than slow more.”
Gimli and Legolas both laughed then.
“Of course you can keep up, Sire,” Gimli said with good humor. “Since Gandalf will stop at every shadow that looks like a crack.”
“When you have found the path, Gimli son of Gloin, you may make as many cracks as you like,” said the wizard.
All laughed at that, the young dwarf most of all, and despite their failure to find any way up the sheer, cliff-like mountains, the party continued to explore in good humor. Sadly, they only had an hour or two of direct sunlight before being cast into shadow once more. Although no snow fell, and it was not as cold as it might be, Bilbo had an idea that they were entering the winter months. The arc of the sun was low along the southern horizon, mostly behind the mountains.
“If only we were coming at these mountains from the north,” Bilbo said, “everything would be so much easier.”
“So it would!” Legolas laughed. “For then we could simply turn about, as we should already be within the bounds of the Black Land.”
Gandalf, however, spared a moment from his muttering inspection of the cliffs they passed to look sharply at Bilbo. At once, his gaze softened and he said gently, “The sunlight eases many burdens.”
“I have no idea what you could mean by that,” Bilbo said, and he meant it to sting. With a conscious effort, he lifted his feet a bit more and matched his stride to Gimli’s.
“Sire,” the young dwarf said respectfully, “I have wondered. You say that there is very little gold in the Shire, and I have never heard of hobbits carrying sword or shield, saving your good self, of course. Will you tell me of Prince Kili’s smithy in that land, then? As an diletant smith myself, I have wondered.”
The change of topic was a surprise, but not an unwelcome one. It did not do to dwell upon unchangeable things like the arc of the sun or the weight of the millstone about one’s neck.
“I am sure I don’t know anything about that either.” Bilbo laughed happily. “Mostly what he called farrier work, I believe, which is the shoeing of various ponies and plow animals. He also made plow bits. The first time he sold one of those, he was very pleased with himself. They last a good while, being steel and hobbits being careful folk, but Fosco Holman settled a field on his second son Dunny when Dunny married Iris Proudfoot, and he decided they should have a plow of their own as well. It was a very good match for the Holman family, you know, the eldest Proudfoot girl. She brought a field of her own, a flock of sheep, three pigs, two ponies, a gaggle of geese, three dozen hens, and a good well. Of course they needed a plow, with that many mouths to feed. By rights, they might have gone to Michel Delving. Probably should have, because Kili made his a bit differently. He’s always had his own ideas about things, my brother, he’s just so quiet about it that folk don’t always notice. But Fosco went to him anyway.”
“I suppose Prince Kili sold at a discount?” Gimli inquired politely.
Bilbo blushed. “You must never tell him.”
“My word of honor.”
“I—well—I convinced Fosco to go to him for it. The Holman family is not—not as respectable as the Baggins family. I arranged matters so that patronizing my brother’s business for the large purchase would be the most attractive option. If it turned out that the new design was a bad one, I would have gotten the couple an ordinary plow from old Deacon Smith over in Michel Delving.” Very quickly, the hobbit added, “But I didn’t have to! Kili’s plow impressed young Dunny so much that he loaned it to his bothers. I’m sure I don’t understand the particulars, something about the angle or the curve of the blade made plowing with Kili’s design faster and smoother than a traditional device. Soon, every time someone needed a plow repaired or a new one made, they were going to Kili right there in Hobbiton.”
“You needn’t convince me that dwarf-make is the finest in any land,” Gimli said with feeling. “I am sure your brother’s business prospered.”
“It did,” Bilbo said. “Eventually. The plows helped. Hobbits can be set in their ways. Even if having a blacksmith there in Hobbiton was closer and more convenient than going out to Michel Delving, they were mostly used to going out to Michel Delving. Change took time.”
“Change often does,” said Legolas, “but it is also as inevitable as the turning of the seasons.”
For the rest of the afternoon, the companions spoke of pleasant things like Beorn’s honey bees, Bilbo’s garden, and Gimli’s mother. It would have been a lovely way to pass the time, if they were making any progress instead of walking along beside a sheer cliff getting no closer to their goal.
When they finally stopped to camp for the night, Bilbo felt rather bleak and hopeless. His neck ached, and he untied his cravat to rub at it. From behind him, in the dark, a thief came upon him, trying to snatch the chain which held the Ring. At once, the hobbit slashed out with Sting. Only Legolas’s quick reflexes saved him. Flipping backward, the elf raised empty hands in a gesture of peace.
“I was not trying to take it, Bilbo. I swear to you.”
“You must not,” the hobbit said. “You must not. Oh! I knew I should have come alone.”
“What is the meaning of this, Legolas?” Gandalf demanded.
“He is bleeding,” the elf said wretchedly. “Ai! It is not a spiritual weight. He is bleeding. I would treat the wound.”
Bilbo’s racing heart slowed. Obviously, the ideas about putting on the Ring and fleeing into the Brown Lands were not his own. He blinked. Slowly, he sheathed his sword.
“That is sensible enough,” he said. “Wounds ought to be treated, and it does—it doesn’t feel pleasant.”
Turning around, Bilbo lifted the Ring from about his neck. Doing so made breathing easier, but it did not lessen the weight. If anything, the Ring grew heavier in his hands. Looking upon it, Bilbo could not resist admiring it, so bright and beautiful even in the dark of night. Perhaps especially in the dark of night. Long minutes passed before he put it in his pocket. Even then, he kept his hand closed around it. Managing to turn back to Legolas, he offered the elf his most charming smile. “I thank you for your offer. Should I take off my shirt?”
“Nay,” said Legolas. “Untying your cravat was sufficient. If you will allow me to unbutton your shirt a little, I should be able to treat the wound. You needn’t remove your armor.”
“Very well.” Although Bilbo did not breathe easily while the elf bathed the back of his neck with a damp cloth, he had to admit that the ointment felt very soothing. In fact, he was very happy to thank Legolas profusely for the service, and neither of them mentioned how readily the hobbit would have knifed him in the gut.
Some things were best unmentioned.