Outside the long shaggy-thatched hall of Beorn, the winter wind was mourning against a sky grey with clouds that were heavy with the promise of more snow: a grey that was darkening as the short day failed.
A bitter blast followed Beorn into the hall through the great wooden doors, as he threw down the great bundles of hay that he was carrying before the four white ponies that were standing together in the hall.
Bilbo shivered as the wind came dancing into the hall, flinging stinging crystals of ice as it went, and Gandalf hastily got up to help Beorn’s great grey dogs push the door closed, before too much of the snow outside could come piling in.
It was far too cold for travelling in these mountainous northern lands, and so Beorn had invited Bilbo and Gandalf, who had travelled with him from Erebor, to stay until the spring warmed the land back into life.
“Your turn to tell a tale tonight,” Bilbo suggested to their host cheerfully. He had long ago overcome any caution in the company of Beorn.
“My turn,” Beorn said,shaking the last snowflakes from his head and shoulders. He stepped carefully over the assorted sheep and dogs that were warming themselves around the broad fireplace in the centre of the hall, and settled himself in his large, short-legged chair, holding out his great strong hands to the warmth. “What kind of tale would you fancy, for this night Bilbo?”
Bilbo considered, as a slender shaggy grey dog at least as tall as Bilbo was himself leaned heavily against him, offering him a basket filled with the apple-cakes that Bilbo had himself baked in the embers of the fire that morning.
“You’ve told us a good many stories about the land, the rivers, the goblins and the eagles. But you said that the Men of these lands were your people too, didn’t you? What about a tale of heroes for a change?”
Gandalf looked sideways at him, his eyes glittering in the firelight under his bristling eyebrows. “Did you not say, Master Baggins, that you had seen enough of war and heroes to last a lifetime?”
Bilbo wrinkled his nose and thought about it. “I did,” he admitted. “But perhaps the horrors are fading now, at least a bit. I’m sure good old Balin and Dwalin and Nori and Dori and the rest will be telling tales of fallen heroes in the Mountain this winter, and, after all, why not? Now it’s all over, for good or ill. ”
“I will tell you a tale of one of my forebears,” Beorn said, his face very serious. The wind was blowing hollow over the high wooden roof. Gandalf had got out his pipe, and he and Bilbo were both sending smoke rings across the long room, though both of them were running short of pipeweed. “A tale from long ago, when our people lived in the West, near the Sea. It is a dark tale at the beginning, but it brightens in the telling.
“It is a tale of a bear of my people. He was born in the wild mountains, born free to roam and fish and hunt, but when he was only a cub, he turned his skin, as our children do, sometimes, just to get the feel of it, while his mother was away hunting. Paws to fingers, long legs, and the feel of flesh on bare skin: oh, it is very strange, the first time ever you change.”
Bilbo stared at him, fascinated, imagining Beorn’s familiar face transformed the other way, from a Man into a great bear.
“And so it was that Men, a band of hunters from the lowland hills found him: a man-child, quite naked in a bear’s cave. He was too young to fight, only three years old, and too trusting to fear them. And they took him, and they stole him away.”
“Goodness me,” Gandalf exclaimed. “That was a risky thing and no mistake. Whatever did they hope to gain by it?”
Beorn shrugged massively. “No tale tells. They were called Hound and Spear and Grasp. And grasp they did, and took the child away to their King, saying that they had slain the bear that guarded the cave, who must have stolen him as a babe. But the child was too young to speak the Common Tongue, and he only growled at the King of Men. And why should he not?
“The King took him as one of his servants, and ordered him trained, for he could see that he was a hearty child, and Kings always need men to serve them. The King called him Bee-wolf, for that was how they called the bear in those lands.
“But this Bee-wolf would not take up arms, nor would he work as the King’s servants ordered him. And as Men often do, he was treated cruelly, and given many cuffs and little food and less love. They thought him silent and surly and so he was, and he sat ever in the corner of the hall, away from the feasting-benches. But he did not give up.
“Bee-wolf grew taller and broader, and took for himself fruit from the apple-garth and the bread from the kitchens, and as he grew, the King’s servants became afraid, and would let him take what he wished, for nobody was willing to stop him. Yet all this time he remained in the form of a Man, for he had near forgotten his own people, only that he knew to hold on, and not give up.
“And the King’s only daughter looked kindly on him, for she was a lonely child, and Bee-wolf was closest to her age in the royal household. Her mother had run from the cold King with his many spears, and left her daughter all alone.
“Bee-wolf would bring her, in secret, sweet honeycomb that he had taken from the wild bees of the wood, and the sweet fruits of wild strawberries. In return, she would sing for him to dance. For all our people have a great love of dancing, but there was precious little music in the hall of the cold King.”
“Now Bee-wolf was grown strong, though in the years of Men he was still counted as a child. Still he used no tool or weapon, for he could break a bow by bending it, and few were the tools that could withstand his strong hands. He began to swim in the rivers and the great lakes, and at last even in the Sea, and he caught many great fishes there. For he was always as hungry as a young bear in springtime.
“There was a man that was well known for swimming swiftly, and he was called Breaker. The men said of him that though his father had been a man among men, his mother was one of the wild sea-waves, and seldom came to shore.
“This Breaker was a man full-grown, and one day, meeting Bee-wolf beside the sea, he asked if the boy wished for lessons in swimming. And that was kindly meant, for little had Bee-wolf been taught in the court of the cold king.
“But Bee-wolf had grown proud as well as strong, and he laughed at Breaker, and taunted him, and leaped into the sea before him.
“Then they strove in the water side by side, and though Breaker was a strong man and well-accustomed to the Sea, he could not swim more swiftly than Bee-wolf. For five days they swam, and then the great waves came up and washed Breaker away, and cast him back up on the long sandy shores where the green waves roll in, singing of the Western Seas. And he was cold and bruised and salt. He told the men who found him on the shore that Bee-wolf had been taken by the Sea, and that Breaker could not save him, for all his skill at swimming.”
“Dear me!” Bilbo observed. “This is a terribly cold wet adventure that poor Bee-wolf is having.” He held out both his hands to the roaring fire, feeling all the more warm and cosy.
“Few adventures are comfortable,” Beorn replied, with a grin that showed just the tip of a white tooth. “The waves lifted Bee-wolf and he swam on, seeking the shore. But there was no land beneath his feet.
“Then the terrible Nixes came, with their long tusks, full of anger. Bee-wolf was sore put to it to wrestle with their slippery wet bodies among the wild and writhing waves, under skies purple and blue with storm clouds, rising and falling with the great green waves. But he did not give up. He dealt the Nixes great blows, and at last when he had killed many, they fled from him out of the heart of the Great Sea, and he swam after them, grim and angry, until at last he found himself on a dark shore in the distant North, and all around him on the beach were the great bodies of the Nixes that he had slain.
“A long walk it was, home to the court of the King. But he knew no other home.”
Here Beorn paused to take a long swig from his flagon.
“Poor Bee-wolf,” Bilbo exclaimed, and Gandalf puffed out a stuttering series of smoke-rings that went dancing merrily around the fireplace.
“You’re a kind-hearted little thing, Bilbo,” Beorn said, meditatively, after considering the fire for a moment. “But I don’t know that Bee-wolf himself was too sorry for himself, for he was a hero, you see.”
“I’ve known the odd hero to be sorry for himself,” Gandalf put in. He puffed out a smoke ring that, unlike the rest, was a clear greenish-blue. “More than the odd one, come to think of it.”
Beorn wagged his mighty head thoughtfully. “Well, if Bee-wolf was, then the tale doesn’t mention it. But I think it didn’t occur to him. I don’t think anyone had ever caused him to think gently of himself, unless, perhaps, it was the king’s daughter.
“At any rate, he had not long been back at court when the word came along the coast that a king of the southern lands had built himself a great hall, and it was called the Hall of Gold, because the roof shone golden in the sunlight.
“But also it was called the Hall of the Cold Hearth, for no-one dared stay in that place after the sun had set, and the fireplace was left cold. For every night a creature of the night would come, and anyone living that was found in the hall, he would tear limb from limb, and devour.
“Now, Bee-wolf heard this, and thought to himself that to defeat the monster would be a deed for a hero, and that to bear a hero’s name and be honoured by men would be a fine thing. So he asked leave to go to the Golden Hall, and the king agreed.
“And the king’s daughter came to him in secret, and she gave to Bee-wolf a warm red woollen hood that she had made.
“And the next day, she came to him and gave him a fine leather belt that she had made, worked with a pattern of bees.
“And on the last day before he left, she came to him in secret and she gave to him her name, to take with him for luck. And that was a great matter in those days, when women did not give their names so freely as they do in these lesser times.
“So Bee-wolf took the hood, and the belt, and the name, and he set off to the Land of the Golden Hall.
“It was a long journey and on the way, he met one who was called Handshoe, for the great leather gloves he wore, made from dragon-skin by the Dwarves of the mountains, which gave him the power to overcome any enemy.
“With him, there was another, who was called Ashwood, and men said that his mother had been an ash tree of the forest, and he bore a long spear, and he was very tall, and his hair was as green as ash leaves in the springtime.
“Now these two were great heroes whose names are remembered in many songs out of the south. They had heard that there was a great deed to be done in the Land of the Golden Hall, and little willing were they to share the renown they hoped to win. For they were proud heroes, with necks as stiff as fir trees, and eyes as proud as a cock on a dunghill.
“But Bee-wolf said to them that he was willing to take the third place, and let them try the adventure first, and indeed, he was used to taking last place at the king’s court, so that was not new to him. So the three heroes went on, with Handshoe in front, in his great scaly gloves, then tall Ashwood, and last of all, Bee-wolf, who was the least tall of the three but had the broadest shoulders.
“And when they came to the King of the Golden Hall, Handshoe went up first to the King, and he offered to slay the ettin that night, if he was paid in gold, and no help would he take from any man.
“And so that night Handshoe slept alone in the Golden Hall.
“But when morning came, his great dragonskin gloves lay on the floor of the hall, spattered with the hero’s blood, but there was no sign of Handshoe at all.
“Then spoke Ashwood, and he said that he would slay the ettin that night, if the King would promise to give him a reward in gold and Handshoe’s great gloves, and if Bee-wolf would sleep near the hall and come if he called for aid. And Bee-wolf agreed to that.
“But when the next morning came, the great dragonskin gloves lay on the floor of the hall, and Ashwood lay there, split end to end, like a sapling that had been torn in two from the topmost branch to the root.
“And Bee-wolf took the two halves of Ashwood and spread them with honey and joined them with his own belt that his King’s daughter had given him, and put him in the care of an old nurse who had looked after the king of the Golden Hall as a little boy, until he should grow back together.
“But Bee-wolf himself asked the King of the Golden Hall if, in return for freeing his hall from an ettin, he would give Bee-wolf a treasure of cheese and cream and golden honey to feast upon.
“Now, this King had a smith who he liked very well, and the smith’s name was Unfriend. I expect you know Unfriend. He comes into many stories.”
Beorn looked expectantly at Bilbo, who had to humbly confess that he had never heard of Unfriend before. Beorn frowned, and shook his head.
“I shall have to tell you more tales of Unfriend, then, before the snows subside and the roads are open once more. But in this story, he is only the King’s smith.
“Unfriend said to the King: if Handshoe and Ashwood and many other heroes could not slay the creature, what chance is there that this man can do so? You’d do better to build a new hall somewhere else, where the monster will not come. Besides, the steward says we’re short of honey.
“Bee-wolf shook his head, and he asked Unfriend: if this ettin comes into the Hall of the King, where is safe from him? You might build another hall, and it would be no safer than this one.
“And the King listened to this, and he agreed that Bee-wolf should have his chance.”
“So, Bee-wolf looked around at the servants of the King of the Golden Hall, and he found three that were thin and quiet and sitting in the corner away from the benches. He asked them gravely if they would aid him in his task. And they said that they would, if Bee-wolf would share his feast with them.
“These three servants were called Half-a-pint, Clod, and Chicken Feet. Bee-wolf set Clod and Chicken Feet to wait, one either side of the great doors, and Half-a-pint, who was very small, he set on a long shelf that ran below the roof-tree. Bee-wolf himself lay down before the main door to the hall to sleep.
Now that night was cold and long, and outside the Golden Hall, men shivered in huts and stables and under hedges as a bitter wind blew. But in the Golden Hall, the air was still and not too cold, and Bee-wolf snored, and Clod snored, and Chicken Feet snored.
“But little Half-a-pint did not dare to sleep in case he might fall off the shelf, and he watched with eyes wide and fearful, as the door creaked quietly open and a shadow deeper than the shadows of the night slipped in.
“Then Half-a-pint remembered the promise of the feast ahead, and he cried out, as loud as he could: Bee-wolf! Bee-wolf, wake up!”
Beorn said this in a very sudden and loud booming voice, causing Bilbo, who had been beginning to doze a little in the firelight, to fall entirely off his stool onto the straw-strewn floor, where he was picked up and brushed off by Gandalf.
“Dear me!” Bilbo said, once he had regained his composure. “I don’t think I would be as good at acting the look-out as Half-a-pint was. I must have been half-dreaming, and I almost felt I saw the door open, over there, and black fingers reaching in to grab me. I couldn’t say a word. I was more pleased than I can say when you shouted and I fell off my stool!”
Gandalf laughed. “You need not fear anything worse than a passing nightmare after too much cheese, Bilbo,” he said reassuringly. “There are very few goblins left around here after the Battle of Five Armies. So the Eagles report.”
“You know that I am cautious, yet even I agree with them,” Beorn nodded, and refilled his great flagon with mead from the jug. “And though ghosts and shadows walk the nights they keep to themselves.”
“And ettins?” Bilbo enquired.
Beorn laughed. “I’ve never seen one. I think those might only be for stories.”
Gandalf puffed on his pipe. “I’ve never seen one, I admit. Still, who knows what remnants of the Dark Years still wander the houseless hills. I doubt they’d want to tackle Beorn.”
“They’d know the tales of my forebears, no doubt,” Beorn agreed, and laughed for a while rumbling to himself, as the fire crackled, and one of the tall hairy dogs rolled on its back and leaned lovingly against his boot.
“Go on with the story!” Bilbo urged him.
“Ah yes! So the shadow came creeping into the Golden Hall in the darkest darkness of the night, and a small cold wind came with it, until Half-a-pint cried out his warning.
Then Bee-wolf and Chicken-feet woke up in a hurry. Bee-wolf leapt to his feet, and Chicken-feet grabbed at the long legs of the monster, and tried to trip him up.
“But the monster kicked Chicken-feet away into the corner of the hall, and he knocked Half-a-pint from his shelf.
“Then Bee-wolf was on him, and they grappled together mightily, rolling here and there across the hall, breaking the benches as each sought to overcome the other. Ah, it was a fine fight, that one! The ettin lifted Bee-wolf and tried to break him, but Bee-wolf held on, and he did not give up. And the ettin threw Bee-wolf against the walls, but Bee-wolf did not give up.
“And all the while, Chicken-feet and Half-a-pint were leaning on one another, and holding out their hands, and shouting advice (which Bee-wolf paid no attention to, for he had more sense than to listen to either of them).
“Then Clod woke up, and he screamed at the top of his voice — like this: Eeeeeeeeeeeeee! And he rushed up and bit the ettin on the ankle.
“Now, Clod was not very strong, and the ettin brushed him away as if he was nothing at all. He almost was.
“But Bee-wolf saw it, and he grabbed the ettin by the hand, and bit and twisted the monster’s arm until it broke clear in two. And the ettin ran away out of the hall and away down the hill, leaving a trail of blood, and one arm behind it, with five long steel claws to it, still clasped in Bee-wolf’s hand.”
“Now, when the morning came, the King of the Golden Hall returned to his place, and found the arm mounted above the door, and Bee-wolf, Chicken-feet, Half-a-pint and Clod sitting beside a roaring fire admiring it.
“Then the King of the Golden Hall declared that there should be a great feast. A feast of cheese and cream and golden honey, and all four heroes ate their fill that night, and drank well on mead.
“And that night, the King and all his servants slept in the Golden Hall, and Bee-wolf, Chicken-feet, Clod, and little Half-a-pint had a place of honour among them.”
Beorn stopped speaking for a while, looking into the white-gold heart of the fireplace, and stirred the embers with the fire-iron. “And that makes for a good enough place to stop for the night, I reckon.”
Gandalf, who had heard the whole tale in several different versions many times down the years, smiled. “A fine tale for a winter’s night — and I think I agree that is a good place to stop for now, with thanks to our host.”
“Thank you very much, Beorn,” Bilbo agreed. “Is there more to the story? You said that there was more about Unfriend, earlier.”
“There is more to the tale,” Beorn agreed, as he got up and stretched to his full, remarkable height. “A good deal more about Bee-wolf too, if you’d like to hear it.”
“We would,” Bilbo agreed. “And we should have time, surely. The winter doesn’t seem to be getting any warmer.”
“It will get colder than this,” Beorn agreed, “And many dark days yet lie between us and the thaw.”