They climb the dark stair for years. Always they go straight up without pause. Never is there a single light or a landing to offer relief. Sometimes, they stop to rest. Bilbo can stretch out completely upon a stair, though he would not call it comfortable. Even so, he is better off than Beorn, who must slump against the wall or become a bear and sprawl across many pointed steps at once. Conversely, Beorn ties with Gimli for snoring, while Bilbo barely manages to blink. Without sunlight to banish his foul dreams, Bilbo does not sleep. He closes his eyes and watches the wheel of fire, or he climbs the stairs. Exhaustion belabors his every breath.
There is no real way to know how much time passes as they climb, only that it is thirsty work. All of the remaining rations are too unpalatable to tempt Bilbo’s appetite—salted fish, salty cram, dry biscuits full of salt—though he is distantly aware that he ought to be ravenous. Like sleep, the dark of the stair makes food unappetizing. Only water remains a respite, cooling his tongue and bringing the smallest joy to the lifeless place. Slowly, step by step, the place grows warmer. It feels no more alive than it did at the base of the mountain, but an acrid heat radiates from the stones.
Bilbo stowed first his jacket in his pack, then his waistcoat, leaving his mithril to shimmer obviously beneath his linen shirt. He could not bring himself to care. If Legolas’s hair and Gandalf’s glowing staff did not draw enemies down upon them in the dark, surely a little silver reflecting the light would not do so. A voice in the back of his mind reminded him that a hobbit’s best defense was remaining hidden, but he could not place it. Surely she was a hobbitess, but he did not know her face. Closing his eyes showed him only fire.
One by one, the soiled clothes disappeared from his pack to be carried by others, easing the weight on his back. The hobbit didn’t mind that. He had trouble caring even about the waistcoat from his new dwarven tailor, though once he’d thought it fine.
He did care about the Ring.
Without his jacket buttoned up over his waistcoat to hold everything in place, the Ring slipped out into the open as often as it could. Always when it did so, he felt the hungry eyes of his companions. They wanted it, of course. It worked upon their minds. Only Bilbo could keep it safe. In the darkness, he was ever vigilant.
Rationing water in the heat of the tunnel was more necessary than ever. Bilbo trusted the others with that much. Left to his own devices, he would sit down and slurp skin after skin of the stuff until it was all gone. Instead, he drank but a sip when someone passed him a canteen, and tried to hold it in his mouth for as long as he could, cooling his throat.
He wanted water almost as much as he wanted proper light from a source more natural than the tip of a wizard’s staff. Drinking, he remembered the chill of the waterfalls in the Valley of Rivendell. He remembered all the trout streams near Bywater and Tuckborough where Kili whiled away days at a time fishing. Thorin was probably a marvelous fisher, living with the Long Lake at his doorstep, but all of those places seemed far away and impossible.
The acrid smell that permeated the darkness grew sulfurous and strong. Thick air filled Bilbo’s mouth like steam as he climbed up step after step. Condensation slicked the steps beneath his feet, but a hobbit’s toes were better suited to such a climb than dwarven boots. Nevertheless, he paid close attention to his feet, and imagined lapping at the water in the little puddles like a dog. He walked far too with his head down, dragging his weary feet up each individual stair. When he finally looked up to the pale grey light radiating from the wizard’s staff, he realized that the air was filled with steam.
“We knew there would be some danger,” the wizard said. “All paths into the Black Land are guarded, one way or the other. Keep heart, Bilbo. Do not decide to turn back until we know what this road faces.”
Soon enough, it was revealed. A far greater obstacle than any dragon or dark creature from before the making of the world. The stair came to its pinnacle beside a smallish pond which seemed to be the source of the steam and smell which dripped down the stairs. Beyond the pond, the path ended in a pile of rocks as solid as a wall.
Bilbo fell to his knees, staring at the wall. All of those stairs: they would have to climb back down again. All of that time wasted in the darkness. They could not go through. Instead, he must return to the fruitless searching for Gandalf’s path at the base of the Ash Mountains. Despair was too mild a term to encompass his feelings.
Gimli stepped forward, running his thick dwarven fingers over the rocks barring their path. Pressing his ear against one of the largest boulders, he tapped it with the handle of his ax. Then he straightened up, rubbing a little grit between his forefinger and thumb.
“Not a dwarf-made blockade, that’s for sure,” he announced. “Best guess, erosion caused by water knocked these loose. Only to be expected, y’ ken, if this place is thousands of years old and that puddle’s been here the whole time. To start with, it was probably broader and less deep, or maybe there’s a geyser. Mountain springs can be that way. If it’s a hot spring, there might be serious heat down below. That water boils and the whole thing whistles up like a tea kettle. Then the water up top cools off a bit, recedes, until eventually it either has the space it wants to do the whole thing all over again. Whoever put the stairs here might have thought the springs were stable. Wanted a way to their baths.”
“I do not think there can be an explanation so innocent as that in this place,” said Gandalf.
“Oh, what does it matter?” cried Bilbo. “This way is shut. We will have to find another.”
“Think I could shift it without bringing the roof down on us, but it will take me about a day. Not a good idea for anyone but me to pull rocks, unless some of you’ve spent time in a mine I don’t know about.” Gimli frowned. “That said, if it is a hot spring, there’s no telling but that it’s a dead end on the other side anyhow. The stairs might lead here and no further.”
Gandalf considered this. “We have come a long way up the mountain already. You are sure there is a chamber beyond this blockage?”
“Corridor or tunnel, at least fifty feet long, probably longer,” Gimli said with great certainty. “No more stairs, either. That much I can tell by the echoes.”
Slowly, the wizard nodded. “Then let us continue on. We know that roads into Mordor cannot be easy. I think this path may yet bring us to our destination.”
Heartened greatly by Gimli’s sensible, dwarven nature and Gandalf’s thoughtful, strategic answer to their trouble, Bilbo rose to his feet. “And we have found water,” he said, trying to add a little Shire cheer to buck everyone up. “I call that a great blessing. Do you think it’s safe to drink?”
“Oh, aye,” said Gimli. “My uncle Oin swears by the stuff for both bathing and drinking. Puts hairs on your chin, it does.”
“Then I shall abstain,” Legolas murmured dryly.
“Perhaps we all should.” Gandalf frowned, turning his attention from the wall to the pool. “We know not the source of this spring. Water that flows out of the Black Land is not safe to drink.”
“I don’t mind risking it,” Bilbo said, sweating in the hot steam. “If Gimli is going to be working hard in all of this heat, he might need a good drink. I’ll give it a taste, and if I don’t feel sick after an hour or so, everyone else will know it’s safe.”
“I will drink,” said Beorn, just as Gimli said, “Let me.” In unison, Legolas and Gandalf said, “Not you.”
They all had such identical expressions of concern despite their different sizes and faces that Bilbo could not help it. He laughed as he had not done in what felt like days. One by one the others joined him, even Gandalf, until he sighed and smiled at them all. “It seems I am overruled,” the hobbit said. “Much as I believe myself the obvious choice, since Beorn can carry me if I take ill, I will not drink.”
“Good,” said Gimli, looking tremendously relieved. “Let me, then. Dwarves are a hardy folk, and the minerals in ground water will do me the least harm.”
Legolas snorted. “Elves cannot be poisoned,” said he. “I will make the test.”
“You would make a poor test,” Gandalf murmured, “if you truly could not be poisoned. But I think Aredhel, the White Lady of the Noldor, would be surprised to learn of your immunity. As would many others in the Halls of Waiting.”
Flushing, the elf said, “That is history, old and ancient. Eöl’s poisons were crafted in great darkness.”
The wizard merely raised an eyebrow.
Legolas scowled at him. “If I am as susceptible as anyone to the miasmas of this place, then I will make the test.” Before anyone could naysay him, the elf scooped up steaming water in both hands and drank deeply from the pool.
“Well, that’s that.” Bilbo noted a small quaver in Gimli’s voice, as though the young dwarf would have chosen a different member of their company to drink, but he said no more about it. “I had best get to work.”
Gimli’s work was slow going, for he had not the tools a dwarf would bring for mining. A battle ax differs from a mattock in many respects. Nor did he carry the levers, wedges, and pegs which he might have used for such a careful shoring under ideal circumstances. Instead, he made do, pulling rocks one at a time and handing them off to Legolas and Beorn who scattered the detritus down the stairs where it would be out of Gimli’s way.
Keeping themselves out of the way, Gandalf and Bilbo sat down for a smoke. Smoking in such dank, oppressive humidity was not very pleasant. However, it filled their noses with a smell other than sulfur and gave their mouths an occupation other than frowning. As always, Gandalf blew beautiful smoke rings. The first he sent bouncing down the stairs like a ball. Since hobbit smials do not, as a rule, have stairs, Bilbo was as amused as any child at the effect. Seeing how appreciative his audience was, the old conjurer sent a waterfall of smoke flowing down the steps next, but brought a flashing silver trout leaping back up toward Bilbo’s feet. A dragonfly darted out of Bilbo’s own pipe, quick as anything, only to be snapped up by the trout. When they collided, they combined with more of Gandalf’s pipe smoke, twisting into a ship, sailing off down the waterfall.
“I am so very glad not to be alone,” the hobbit admitted quietly.
“I will be with you, Bilbo Baggins,” the wizard promised. “As long as this burden is yours to bear.”
But in truth, watching the swirling smoke and Gandalf’s light, Bilbo’s burden did not feel so very heavy after all. When they finished their pipes, Gandalf even said that enough time had passed. If Legolas was feeling no ill effects, the water must come up from the Brown Lands and not flow out of Mordor. Cheering the decision, Bilbo immediately went to drink, bathe his face and neck, drink some more, wash his feet, and drink some more.
As a beverage, the spring water was middling at best. Certainly, it did not deserve the praises of Gimli’s uncle Oin, for whom Bilbo normally held a great respect. Somewhere between terribly weak tea and slightly fetid water, the hot beverage did not cool or sooth as the fresh streams in the Brown Lands did. Even so, Bilbo returned to it every few minutes. Drinking was a great comfort in the steaming heat of the stairwell, even such rank water.
So it was that all of the others were working to clear the passage when Bilbo leaned over the pool once more to draw some water. Slipping out from underneath his loose, steam damp shirt, the Ring dangled over the water. Pulling at his neck even more than usual, Bilbo wondered playfully if it wanted to drown him. Perhaps it simply liked pools below mountains. Gollum spent long enough in such a lake, after all. He smiled down at the pretty golden bauble. Even it could not be heavy enough to pull him down into the pool.
The water rose up, crashing into his face, bowling him off his feet, tossing him about like a bean in a boiling pot. He was boiling. Around him, the water burned and scalded his skin. Screaming in pain only sent a new stream of bubbles into the swirling maelstrom. Something hard struck him in the stomach, wrapping around him in a strangle hold. Squirming and fighting, he tried to break free of the creature’s grip. That grip only tightened in response, like a choking vine wrapped around a rose bush. A garter snake squeezing a helpless mouse. The hobbit tried in vain to draw his sword, but before he could he was pulled up and out of the water like a fish on a line. Legolas landed him neatly upon a rocky shore, for Legolas was the one who had him.
Bilbo coughed a bit when trying to speak. “Thank you,” he said, and also, “sorry.”
A mercurial smile flashed over the elf’s mouth. “I was glad to feel you fight. The drowning always do. Between the heat and the force of the water, I greatly feared you might stop fighting all too soon.”
“Yes.” When Bilbo covered his next cough, he felt the raw, scalded skin of his cheeks and saw how red his hands were. That last might have been a trick of the light, for Legolas’s face and armor were cast in the orange flicker of flame, not the cool grey of Gandalf’s wizardry. Bilbo looked about.
They were not where they had been. The water beside which they sat was not a pool, but a rushing underground river, steaming and bubbling as it went. Around them, a cavern echoed, but it was not a great expanse to be filled with half a city such as some of those in Erebor. In size and shape it reminded Bilbo very much of the Hall of Fire in Rivendell, large enough for many to gather and dance, but not so large that one could not see all the walls at once. Behind the river there was a wall of stone and across from it a similar one. To Bilbo’s right, a dark tunnel snaked away from the cavern, off into the mountain. To his right, there was fire.
An entire wall of the cavern was roaring flame.
Without fuel, origin, or explanation, the flaming wall blazed in the darkness. This was the evil fire that filled Bilbo’s dreams. These were the flames of Mordor. These were the flames of its master.
“We’re here,” he whispered.
Legolas started. “This cannot be our destination. We were not down the spout of Gimli’s tea kettle for so long as all of that.”
A tremulous smile lifted Bilbo to his feet. “You will say that no matter how swift the water, we cannot possibly have fetched up at Mount Doom so quickly. That we must still be beneath the Ash Mountains. But I tell you, my friend, I know these flames. They fill my dreams. These are the flames of Mordor, Legolas. We are here.”
The elf looked uncertain, but he did not bar Bilbo’s way as the hobbit stepped slowly toward the wall of fire. Every inch of Bilbo’s skin stung and chaffed against his clothing as he moved. Each step sent sharp pain across the leathery pads of his raw, burned feet. Yet every step lead to the next as Bilbo made his tentative way to the wall of fire.
Solemnly lifting the chain from his neck, he drew forth the Ring. It glinted beautifully in the firelight. Never before was there an item so precious and perfect. Never again in all the world would there be another. Caressing it with two fingers, he slid the Ring off its chain, smiling.
“Goodbye,” he said, and cast it into the fire.