Searching hopelessly along the base of the Ash Mountains for a secret path for a third fruitless day wore on everyone’s nerves. Bilbo’s temper was frayed enough already. Every time he closed his eyes, fire filled them. Walking dragged his toes in the dirt, and the stone of the mountains was sharp and cold beneath his hands. The impassable wall barred him from his goal, and so barred him from his much longed for homecoming. Bilbo was not alone in his frustration.
Beorn only seemed happy when he was carrying Bilbo. That, in turn, made the hobbit happy enough, or at least gave him a small respite from his weary plodding. Gandalf never seemed happy at all. Grumbling and mumbling to himself, the wizard did not deign to speak to his companions even once. In contrast, Legolas and Gimli offered a forced joviality, singing and joking until Bilbo snapped at them for quiet.
Overhead, grey clouds swirled. Identical in color to the peaks of the aptly named mountains, the clouds filled the world with grey. Even when noon came, the hobbit doubted he would see the sun. He so wanted to see the sun, but seeing anything above seemed impossible. He did not even see the danger, but he felt it. There was a certain thrum against his chest, a sensation of kinship that couldn’t quite be placed.
Narrowing his eyes, Legolas shot a single arrow into the sky. One of those awful black swans plummeted like a stone. A fiery red eye was blotted out by the pale, elven shaft. The insistent hum against Bilbo’s chest ceased.
Sighing in relief, the hobbit rested his head once more against the skinchanger’s shoulder. He was so very weary, and a swan was not a great danger. Gimli praised the elf’s accuracy, then went to collect the kill, volubly lamenting that the dark creatures could not be eaten.
“We need water,” Beorn said. “Not food.”
“We’ll need both soon enough, unless Gandalf can find a path.” The young dwarf laughed, hiding the bird among the rocks, where it would not be spotted by its fellows. In the air, the swans looked small, but in Gimli’s arms, the bird showed a wingspan as long as a dwarf was tall. Bilbo did not like the idea of facing the onyx beak with only his little sword, and the swans were the least of their concerns. They needed a way forward.
Bilbo blinked his heavy eyes open. It was almost noon. Despite the clouds, he could feel a hint of warm sunlight on his face. “What is that?”
Gandalf stopped walking and muttering. He looked at the cliff side, then at Bilbo. “What do you see?”
The dark fissure in the rock was more of a crack than a path, but the stone steps looked made, not natural. Each was tall, smooth, and broad, hewn from a darker slate than the ash grey of the mountains. Once again, without the hobbit’s leave, his eyes were shuttered. The wheel did not burn in the sunlight, no matter how weak and pale. Nevertheless, Bilbo forced his eyes open and slid down from Beorn’s shoulder. “This here,” he said, stepping into the fissure. “Doesn’t it look like a path?”
Gimli gasped. Gandalf only frowned.
With his long staff, the wizard tapped the stone on either side of Bilbo, trying the steps and scowling at the arching stone. “This goes into the mountain,” he said. “The path we’re looking for goes over.”
“Does it matter?” Legolas asked. “It is a path. We have wasted time enough looking for one. I have been tempted before now to simply scale these cliffs.”
Gandalf raised an eyebrow. “Does it matter that this path goes into the mountains while we have no evidence that it goes through? Could even an elf safely climb a sheer rock face of such a height?”
While his mouth twitched in disapproval, the elf did not openly argue. That, he left to Gimli who growled like a frustrated dog. “We must do something. Drinking up all of our water at the base of this mountain does us no good. Either we go in, we go over, or we go west to the Black Gate and force our way in. We have no other options.”
“We could go home,” someone said. With a start, Bilbo realized he was the one to say it. Shamed by his own cowardice, he looked down at his feet, less dirty than the boots of his compatriots, for he did less walking than they. He was coddled and carried by them, but it did needn’t be so. They had done enough. “That is an option. That is always an option.”
“It is,” said Beorn. “One I will take now, if you will come with me. We will go to my house. Light fires to keep the winter at bay. Sleep. Get fat on mead and honey.”
Bilbo smiled, but he couldn’t look up. “I suppose I mean to say you could all go home. I’ll take this path. Gimli’s right. I can’t keep going east or west, killing time. What I carry must go south in any way that opens to me. But this looks like a dark road. There will be no sunlight to—there will be no light. None of you need accompany me.”
Gimli snorted. Legolas laughed, but there was no humor in the sound.
“Ridiculous hobbit,” Gandalf said, entirely dismissing Bilbo’s offer. “At least it doesn’t look like the rocks will cave in on us, and I know it cannot be Cirith Ungol, which approaches through Ithilien. No, this is not that road. It dares not that ancient danger. Yet dangers are not less because they are unknown, Bilbo Baggins. I know nothing of this road. No lore. No rumors. No history. Nothing.”
Looking up was an effort. In the dark of the cave, away from the sunlight, the mill stone about his neck weighed a great deal. Even so, the hobbit met the wizard’s eyes squarely. “What do you suggest?”
Gandalf smiled. “Let us go south. What dangers there are, we will face together.”
Leaving the sun behind was a great wrench for Bilbo, but the hobbit was not the most uncomfortable on the dark path beneath the mountain. Legolas and Beorn tied for that honor. Both had some experience with caves and caverns, but neither naturally lived beneath the earth as hobbits and dwarves did. Fortunately, the stairs they climbed were tall and broad, a great effort for Bilbo to scramble up, in fact, and spacious enough for Beorn to walk comfortably. They were also well illuminated by the soft grey light of Gandalf’s staff, which was an improvement over Bilbo’s earlier experience beneath the Misty Mountains.
Despite these benefits, the skinchanger complained for the first time. “These could face the sky,” he said. “We are not deep. No reason for them to be buried. No reason for us to be buried.”
“Reason enough.” Gandalf’s contradiction came quietly in the darkness. “Orcs and other residents of this land hate the light to varying degrees. Some, like trolls, cannot walk abroad in the sun without turning to stone.”
Beorn’s grumble was that of a bear, but he bore the discomfort stoically. Unlike Gimli, who was very comfortable in a tunnel, but complained a great deal about their dwindling supplies and the height of the stairs.
“Not natural, making steps so high. Come up to my knees, these do, almost. Even the men of Dale don’t build their towers on such a scale. Bad engineering, I call it. Unless they were made for trolls or giants, they’re made to trip up ordinary folk. Made to be a problem. Should have asked some dwarves in. Could have seen to a few water fountains along the way, dwarves could. Three hours now, climbing, three hours and not a single landing or side-way for rest or food. What sort of person were these made for. Even trolls need to eat.” Without assistance or input, the dwarf continued his litany of issues, talking as much to himself as anyone else.
Hearing him complain so was strangely reassuring. Bilbo thought any talk in the still, silent dark might be. Without Gimli’s words, only the footsteps of the companions gave any life to the stairs. There was no wind or water to break the stillness. No worms drilled holes in the dirt, no insects crawled beneath their feet. After hours of climbing, seeing a rat or spider would have relieved some of the weight on Bilbo’s mind. Eventually, even Gimli fell quiet, unable to bear up in the oppressive dark.
“There is only death in this place,” the hobbit said helplessly.
“Not even death,” Gandalf corrected. “Death is natural. The end of life. This place holds not even that. Here, there is only nothing.”
“How cheering,” said Gimli.
Legolas laughed. Unlike the gleam of the wizard’s staff, the chime of an elvish voice served well to brighten the passage. Even Bilbo’s burden lightened for a moment. “The son of Gloin could find fault with the stars themselves.”
“Hardly stargazing, what we’re doing now,” the dwarf muttered, but when Bilbo peeked backward, he saw a smile on that beardless face.
Walking through the darkness was not so bad when accompanied by such friends. In truth, Bilbo greatly preferred it to the fear he felt when alone in the goblin tunnels. Selfishly, he also preferred his current company to traveling with his brother. He was not worried about harm coming to Gimli or Beorn, except in the general way where he wondered if they were all walking into fire and death.
More importantly, he wondered what Thorin and Kili were doing, safe in Erebor. He decided they were probably planning a garden for him. One couldn’t plant in winter weather, but they could set aside a little land, fence it off, and plot. Knowing those two, it would have the most elaborate wrought iron fence that could be made, and irrationally shaped plots unlike any garden in the Shire. He could practically see them working and laughing in the shifting folds of the back of Gandalf’s robe, and he concentrated on their smiles.
When he blinked, he saw only the fire.
Gimli was right to dislike the stair. The smooth stone steps leading up through the dark passage were built on Beorn’s scale, not that of a dwarf or hobbit. Each step was tall. Bilbo wasn’t. His toes caught upon the smooth edge of his next step and he tripped forward, inches away from crashing face first into the stone. Strong arms caught him about the waist, pulling him upright. Looking over his shoulder, Bilbo met Gimli’s relieved grin with one of his own.
Then the dwarf’s eyes dropped. Swallowing visibly, Gimli stared Bilbo’s shirt with wide, unblinking eyes. If he were not so very young, Bilbo might have misread the gaze. Misunderstanding would have been a kindness. A different sort of glance would not awaken the fierce, clawing thing in Bilbo’s chest that howled for him to push the child before him backward down the long stair to his death.
Legolas or Beorn would catch him. Pushing him would be fruitless. Telling himself as much did not assuage the monster within. Instead, it only whispered about swords and daggers and strangling hands in the dark.
“Could you put it away?” Gimli’s voice was small, almost frightened. “I’m sorry. I don’t like looking at it.”
That was a lie. It had to be a lie. Gimli’s eyes couldn’t look away. No one disliked looking at the precious object. Nevertheless, Bilbo shoved the Ring back beneath his shirt instantly, turning his back forcefully on the dwarf. In front of him, Gandalf had stopped to look back at Bilbo. Grey eyes were sad, and saw too much.
“Are we stopping?” the hobbit snapped up at him.
“Not yet.” The wizard continued his ascent. “I don’t think this is a good place for it.”
And as Bilbo quite agreed, the companions pressed on.