The next morning did not so much dawn, as gradually lighten to a paler bluish-grey. Outside the house of Beorn the wind cried across a landscape that was leached of all colour: black, grey and white.
“Is it like this every winter, here?” Bilbo had poked his nose outside the door briefly, when Beorn went out, and retreated swiftly to the fireside.
“Most winters,” Gandalf told him. “It gets considerably colder, East of the Mountains, than it generally does in the Shire. Apart from in the Fell Winter, of course.”
“I was just thinking of the Fell Winter,” Bilbo grumbled, shivering at the very thought. “Frost nipping your nose, not to mention your toes, wolves coming over the Brandywine. I don’t envy Beorn his winter weather. I suppose at least he knows to expect it, so he can get his stores laid in. That was the great trouble with the Fell Winter, you know. It just went on and on, and nobody knew when it would end, or if it ever would. The Horn-call of Buckland sounding out desperately in the night… did I ever tell you about the wolf-watch? ”
“You may have mentioned it once or twice.”
“A terrible time. Terrible.” Bilbo stretched his curly toes, remembering the feeling of snow and hunger. “I expect you remember as well as I do.”
“I remember,” Gandalf said. “I remember the sledge your mother built to carry food all the way down to Hobbiton. She was a most remarkable woman, Belladonna Took.”
“She was indeed.” Bilbo wrinkled his nose, and looked up and sideways at Gandalf, who was attempting to clean his pipe with a straw. “I’m sorry I good-morning-ed you, that day when you came looking for someone to join your adventure. I should have remembered the help you brought us in those days. Mother would never have done that.”
“Tush!” Gandalf exclaimed. “No matter! A difficult time in many ways, the Fell Winter. My friends and I were glad that we could help.” He looked at his pipe and sighed. “I don’t know why I’m making such an effort to clean this. I only have one more smoke left in my pouch.”
Bilbo gave him a look of amusement. “Too late, Gandalf! I finished mine last night. If you’d spoken sooner, I might have spared you some, as Mother would wish me to, no doubt.”
Gandalf smiled. “Ah well. It has ended up being a good thing for us all that you didn’t let the Fell Winter squash you entirely out of the way of being an adventurous Took, Bilbo.”
“I suppose it was. One way or another, the dragon fell, the Mountain was restored, and Dale will be renewed. The loss of my position as a proper respectable Baggins who never did anything remarkable is a small price to pay for all that.”
“I’m inclined to think your mother would be be rather proud of you, Bilbo.”
“Perhaps she would, at that. I don’t think Father would… unless he thought it was the kind of thing that Mother approved of, of course! But I’m rather looking forward to getting back to being just a Baggins at Bag End again.”
Gandalf considered him with a gleam in his eye under his bristling eyebrows. “You don’t think the Shire might feel a little small now? Now that you’ve seen a little of what the world holds outside?”
“I can always entertain visitors,” Bilbo said, very firmly indeed. “I’ve had quite enough of adventures!”
Beorn was absent for much of the short winter morning, and when he returned it was with a heavy sack full of half-frozen carrots and parsnips,which were received with delight by Beorn’s ponies.
Once everyone had eaten, and the fire had been stirred up to fill the hall with a red light, Bilbo asked Beorn if he would continue the tale of the Bee-wolf.
Beorn shook his shaggy head. “Whatever shall we do with you, Mr Baggins? You have done nothing all day, while I dug up roots, and now you ask your host to labor on your behalf after the sun has set!”
“Ah, but one so mighty as yourself is surely not exhausted by digging up a mere sack of carrots?” Bilbo asked, rather daringly. He reckoned he had the measure of Beorn by now. “I will cheerfully tell you more tales of the small doings of my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, and remoter cousins to the ninth degree this winter, but just now, I am much intrigued by your tale of the Bee-wolf and would dearly love to hear more of it. I am sure Gandalf would, too.”
Gandalf nodded, puffing gently on the very last pipeful of weed that either he or Bilbo was likely to see before the spring. “Don’t leave us with only half the story, Beorn!”
“Oh well then!” Beorn huffed, trying not to show that he was pleased to have an enthusiastic audience. “Where had we got to?”
“Bee-wolf and Chicken-feet, Half-a-pint and Clod slew the ettin that came to the Golden Hall to eat anyone he found inside it,” Bilbo told him, helpfully.
“Now, that is not how the tale goes,” Beorn replied. “I said that the ettin, whose name was Grinder, came to the hall, and that Bee-wolf wrestled him, with the help of his friends, and tore off one of Grinder’s arms. But Grinder wasn’t slain. You don’t slay an ettin so easily as that. He ran off into the night.
“And indeed, that is just what Unfriend said to the King of the Golden Hall. Unfriend looked at the great gnarled arm with its long black claws, and he said: I wonder: Is Grinder dead, or only wounded?
“Now, at the time, everyone was far too busy celebrating to pay over-much attention to Unfriend, but the next day, Unfriend looked at Grinder’s arm, and he looked at the trail of black blood that led out of the hall and away over the hill, and he said: I wonder: Is Grinder dead, or only wounded?
“This thought began to trouble the King as he sat in his hall with the roof of gold. He began to wonder if Grinder might return to take back his arm, or send some friend or kinsman to take his revenge. And he looked less warmly on Bee-wolf, and on the third day the king himself said to Bee-wolf: I wonder: Is Grinder dead, or only wounded?
“Bee-wolf was of no mind to leave his task half-finished, and also, the feast was over, so he offered to follow the trail to where-ever Grinder had gone, and find out if he was dead. Now, it was Unfriend who had pointed out the trail in the first place, and the land of the Golden Hall was not land that Bee-wolf knew well. So Bee-wolf asked the King if he would send Unfriend with him to be his guide. And since the king asked him, Unfriend could not refuse.
“So Bee-wolf and Unfriend set out. Unfriend led the way up through the hills and woods and dales into the roots of the mountains, where Unfriend had often come seeking iron and gems, and Bee-wolf followed him, half a step behind all the way.
“At last they found their way to a long dark lake under the shadow of the mountain-side: the kind of lake that is near as cold as ice, and deep as the sky is high, and into the pool poured a loud waterfall white with snowmelt. There they found a Nixe, lingering on the cliff beside the pool.
“Unfriend asked the Nixe: have you seen the ettin, Grinder, that came to my lord’s hall and gorged himself upon living men? And the Nixe said: Perhaps.
“Then Unfriend asked the Nixe: Is Grinder dead, or only wounded?
“And the Nixe asked: Who speaks of my kinsman, Grinder?
“Then Bee-wolf stepped forward, and he said: I do. For Grinder has eaten the flesh of men as they slept, and Grinder has driven men forth from the golden hall that they built to sleep safe from the terrors of the night.
“And the Nixe looked strangely upon Bee-wolf, and said: is this not all that Men have done to us, Brown One? For Men came and drove us from the shores into the wild hills and the untame mountain-roots. They have taken our skins, and devoured our kin.
“At that, Bee-wolf was silent.
“Then Unfriend laughed bitterly and he cried out: So speaks a wicked monster of the wild!
“But Bee-wolf said: Grinder killed while men were sleeping, and he drove them from their home, yet had no good use for it. Grinder did more than hunt to live, and so it is that I must know if he is dead.
“Grinder is my kinsman, and I will defend him! the Nixe said,and it put on a water-form like a horned and hairless bull, and called like a great horn blowing then leaped into the lake. All around them, other Nixes raised their heads from the black water.
“Then Unfriend would have fled, thinking there were too many, but Bee-wolf laughed, saying: Many foes can give a man only one death. And though this cliff be ten fathoms tall, I have seen taller.”
“Unfriend thought Bee-wolf was over-proud. Still, he took a rope and tied it to a tree, throwing it down to the lake. And he promised to wait and draw Bee-wolf up from the water when he called.
“So Bee-wolf dived from the cliff, and he vanished into the cold blackness, and all Unfriend saw of him was his feet, disappearing under the water.
“Now, for a while Unfriend waited, as he had promised Bee-wolf he would do. But the Nixes watched him with fierce eyes.
“And in a while and a while, as the sun was falling, a great bloom of blood rose into the dark surface of the lake, and the Nixes were swimming swift and savage among it. Unfriend thought that Bee-wolf was surely dead. He would have fled, save that the Nixes were watching him, and he thought that surely they would scale the rope and devour him as soon as he turned away.
“So he unfastened the rope and threw it into the lake, and he fled as fast as his legs would carry him, over the mountain-roots and the green hills, and he came back to the Golden Hall just as the last of the light in the western sky was fading, and he said to the King: Bee-wolf has fallen.
“Then Chicken-feet, Half-a-pint and Clod, those three who had fought beside Bee-wolf against Grinder in the hall, called out in grief and disbelief, and swore that they would find Bee-wolf dead or alive, and bring him safely home, if that could be done.
“So they took up lanterns and went out of the hall. And now,” Beorn said, getting to his feet “I must do the same, for it will be a cold night, and we need more fuel for the fire.”
“Oh no!” Bilbo exclaimed. As a story-teller himself, he had a very clear idea how an audience should respond to a sudden break in the tale while the hero was unaccounted for. “Are you really going out without even telling us if Bee-wolf is alive or not?”
Beorn beamed at him, uncharacteristically cheerful as his grey shaggy dogs frisked around him like puppies. “I am indeed, Mr Baggins.”
“Well!” Gandalf said, “I hope you will hurry back, Beorn — if, that is, you would not like us to help with your task. We are, after all, your guests, and most grateful for your generous hospitality.”
This seemed to please Beorn even more. He looked the old wizard with his staff up and down, and put a hand down to estimate the height of Bilbo’s head. “Little bunny here would blow away in the wind by the time he was two steps from the door, I reckon, and…” he looked thoughtfully at Gandalf, and after a moment, tapped him gently on the brim of his pointed hat.
“It seems to me that you, Gandalf, have had enough of labouring through the wild winds of winter. You have been somewhat busy of late — and the lands about my house will be pleasingly free of goblins for a good many years after the Battle of Five Armies. That’s worth more to me than a little firewood.”
“I have been busy indeed. And I see a good deal more work ahead, too. I shall take your hospitality with thanks, and stay by the fire, for once.” Gandalf leant forward so the firelight played across his old face, holding out his hands to the fire so that it almost looked to Bilbo as though there was a ring on his finger; a ring with a stone made of flickering embers. But of course, there was nothing of the kind: only the wrinkled fingers of a tired old wizard.
Beorn did not stay long out in the breathless cold of evening, and when he came back, he stamped his feet enthusiastically to shed the snow, and then came straight back to the fire, where Bilbo had managed to produce what he thought was a very fine cheese-pie. The dogs were surprisingly good at baking bread, but it was, as Bilbo said, very pleasant for them all to have a change.
Beorn soon took up his tale again. “Now, as Bee-wolf dived deep in the lake among the Nixes and they came to nip and tear at him, the change came over him. His skin became thick as bear-hide, his teeth were knives, and his body strong and swift. The Nixes pulled at him, and he tumbled and struggled with them, and he lost his breath, but they could not hurt him, so they pulled him up to the foot of the waterfall and left him for their mistress to deal with.
“Behind the falls was a cavern, and there Bee-wolf turned upon the Nixes with a great roar, and sent them hurrying back to their lake.
“There in the cavern behind the falls was a mighty woman, tall and strong, with the teeth and ears of a great wolf, and her grey hair grew down her back. Ancient she was, and long had she dwelt in the shadows, strong in spells. And she said: Grinder is my son. Why do you seek him?
“Bee-wolf answered: Grinder is an eater of men, a power of greed that walks on two legs. I must know that he is dead.”
“Then she took hold of him and wrestled with him. Now, a bear is stronger than a wolf, you understand, and heavier, too, but Bee-wolf was a young bear in those days, and also he was unused to being a bear at all. And Grinder’s dam was filled with wiry strength, and she was fiercely skilled. As she grappled him, spell-craft was in her grip.
“Twice she threw Bee-wolf down grappling swiftly and shifting balance till he fell.
“Twice he stood again, and she snarled and dodged his flashing claws.
“The third time her teeth tore at his neck, but he caught her with his great arms and barely did she escape his hold.
“Then they rested for a moment, catching their breath with wary eyes in the ever-moving light that came through the curtain of the waterfall.
“Then Grinder’s dam said: My son is wounded to the death, and you come into my house to slay me too! Is there no limit to my grief? And she howled, and her voice was full of tears.
“Now Bee-wolf was troubled at heart. For Grinder had killed and eaten many men, and driven them from their homes, but of Grinder’s mother, he knew nothing.
“And the words that the Nixe had said came back to him, that Men had come and killed his kin. Bee-wolf looked upon his bear-form and he did not know himself.
“So he said: If Grinder is wounded to the death, then my task is done. If you do not steal men from the Golden Hall to feed upon, then I have no quarrel with you.
“Now, Grinder’s mother was old and strong. She had done many evil things in her day, and Unfriend could have listed all of them and a few more out of old tales, no doubt. But she was wise in her wickedness, and she knew herself outmatched.
“Therefore, she stifled her growls, and swore that she and her children would never again come to the Golden Hall, nor steal men away to eat.
“She brought Bee-wolf to the still form of Grinder where he lay beside the waterfall. Grinder’s eyes still glared, but he lay still, with a great wound where his arm had been, and as Bee-wolf reached out his claws, Grinder moved for the last time, and his blood ran red into the lake.
“All around Grinder were the remains of men that he had slain, and treasures that he had taken. Cups and helms and swords lay there, mired with slime from the lake and Grinder’s blood, and Bee-wolf left most of them there, for they belonged to no man living.
“He took only a hilt, from a sword long perished, and the hilt was gold and set with the red enamel figures of bears, and he said to the mother of Grinder: this alone will I take for the King of the Golden Hall, as weregild for the men your son devoured.
“And her eyes flashed green and greedy, for that had been the sword of a great man in Ages long gone and forgotten, but she said nothing.
“So Bee-wolf took the treasure for himself, and he left Grinder’s mother behind to mourn her son, leaping through the fall into the lake.
“When he came to the surface of the lake, he found the rope he had hoped to climb floating, and no sign anywhere of Unfriend. Around him the Nixes began to swim close and nip at him, but no harm could they do him, so thick was his fur, and nor could the cold water harm him. He swam down the lake, along the cliff. By now the sun had set and the moon shone round and bright in the dark water. The Nixes called to him, telling him that he must drown, for he was not made as they were for a land of moon and stone and deep water.
“He paid no heed to them, and swam on, and on, until at last he came to a place where the cliff dipped low to the water, where the Nixes were used to climbing out onto the bank, and there he climbed up into the moonlight, with the gold sword hilt still held to his chest.
“Bee-wolf did not know the mountain-roots, nor yet the wild hills. This was not his own country, and he did not have the way of it. That was why he had asked Unfriend to come with him as a guide. So he wandered in the dark, cold and chill and uncertain, and as he wandered, he lost his thick fur and his claws and teeth, until, when he saw the light of the lantern held aloft by Chicken-feet, he was chill and bare as a man-child, holding nothing but the old sword-hilt.
“But Half-a-Pint took off his hood, and gave it to Bee-wolf, and Clod gave up his cloak, and Chicken-feet his woollen vest, and they went along quite cheerfully, all the long road back to the Golden Hall.
“And when they came to the Hall, Bee-wolf went in and there was the King taking supper. Unfriend was there, and he was speaking loudly of the blood he had seen in the lake, and how Bee-wolf must be long dead.
“Nay! Cried Chicken-feet, as he came into the hall. See! Bee-wolf lives, and he has triumphed over your enemy, O King!
“And Bee-wolf said: Grinder is dead, not only wounded. I saw him die. His blood ran into the lake. He will eat no more men of the Golden Hall. I took from his treasure this sword-hilt, as token he is dead.
“Now Unfriend stared, and spluttered, and protested, speaking of the Nixes in the lake.
“There are many dangers in the roots of the mountains, Bee-wolf told him. Those Nixes are not the greatest peril I have seen.
“The great Bee-wolf would have been in less peril if Unfriend had not deserted him, Chicken-feet said, and there was not a man there, not even the King himself, who could deny it.
“The King stood up, and he looked at the hilt that Bee-wolf laid before him in awe, for it was an ancient thing. Then the King gave his judgement:”
At this point, Beorn got up and began to declaim loudly, as if he were a king speaking to his whole court, if the court had been made up mostly of dogs, ponies and sleepy bees.
“Bee-wolf is a fighter unmatched in my Golden Hall, and he has freed us from the ettin. He warns us of great dangers, of which our good servant Unfriend also has spoken. None of my people shall go again across the wild hills to the mountain-roots, but shall dwell here beside my hall, in freedom and in peace.
“And in token of Bee-wolf’s great deed, Unfriend shall make a sword for this hilt such as was sung of in days of yore. For Unfriend is as great a smith as Bee-wolf is a fighter.
“Then the King laughed, saying that Unfriend was not made to face the perils of the mountain-root. Unfriend was bitter angry at this, but he could not deny it.”
Beorn sat heavily back down in his low chair and took a drink from his cup, before he went on.
“So Unfriend took iron from the forge, and he wrought it long with his bitterness and his anger at his humiliation before all the people in the Golden Hall, until it became a great dark sword. Unfriend fixed it to the golden hilt that was worked with a pattern of bears, but once it was done, it was as if serpents were twining around it.
“And he took it to the King in his Golden Hall, saying angrily: here is the mighty sword I have made for Bee-wolf as you commanded, lord.
Bilbo knew better, of course, than to interrupt the tale-teller, but he could see where the story was going. He had heard tales of cursed swords made in anger before. So he silently made a face at Gandalf, as we do, when we know the tale will turn dark, but can’t stop listening.
Gandalf winked at him.
“So, the King stood before the hall before the evening meal, and he called upon Bee-wolf, who had just come in with Chicken-feet, Half-a-Pint and Clod beside him.
“And he said to Bee-wolf: here is the fine sword that Unfriend has made to fit the hilt you took from Grinder’s hoard. Will you take it, and bear it to defend my Golden Hall, as my thane? For I would do you honour.
“Bee-wolf looked upon the sword, and he saw the sharp edges, swift to cut and kill, and the darkness that flickered along the blade.
“Bee-wolf shook his head, and he said: Never have I borne blade, save the weapons of my body, and I have no mind to do so now. Indeed, I came in just now to say farewell, for Chicken-feet here has a mind to walk in the oaken-woods this summer, and Half-a-pint has a mind to try new beer, and Clod is coming with us.
“Now this made Unfriend even angrier. But there was nothing at all he could do. The King of the Golden Hall took the great sword and hung it on the wall, where it made a very pretty picture, I’m sure. The King said he was sorry to lose Bee-wolf, and said many times that he was welcome to return at any time.
“And Bee-wolf and his three friends went off out of the Golden Hall, down the paved road, beyond the trimmed fields and the neat coppice-woods, until they came to the place where the mountains lifted blue on the horizon, and the trees lifted up their long grey arms to hold the stars high above. And then Bee-wolf took up his bear-form, and Chicken-feet took off his boots, and walked proudly on his claws. Clod shook himself until he looked more like a badger than a Man, and Half-a-Pint walked on in the middle of them happily enough.
“And so they went away, and after a while found new adventures, of which there were many. But that is the end of this one.” Beorn beamed and sat back in his seat, pleased with a tale well told.
“Well, that was a bit of an eye-opener at the end, and no mistake!” Bilbo exclaimed. “I was sure Bee-wolf was going to take the sword and get himself killed with it in some grim and Mannish way. Still, it was a very sensible choice, I must say. I think he did quite the right thing.”
“The natural choice of the Baggins?” Gandalf suggested, and there was a light of quiet laughter about him.
“Perhaps it is, and what’s wrong with that?”
“Not very Baggins to go off wandering the world: I think that is your mother in you, Bilbo,” Gandalf said. “Bilbo’s mother was a most remarkable hobbit, Beorn. But something that both Hobbits and those descended from the great Bears of the past share, it seems, is their desire to turn back with determination to food, comfort and rest.”
“Yes,” Bilbo agreed. “Adventures have a way of scooping you up and carrying you along and that’s all very well in its way but I’m really very glad it’s all over with. But that was a jolly good tale for a cold night after the fall of the Dragon, Beorn. I wish I’d made some notes of it now.”
“I think you might find it would not be the same tale if you wrote it down,” Gandalf said. “Some tales are different according to the place, and the time as well as the storyteller — not to mention the listeners. I think this might be one of them.”
“I was surprised that Bee-wolf didn’t marry the king’s daughter at the end,” Bilbo told Beorn. “A bit of a change from the usual fairy-tale ending, that.”
Beorn laughed uproariously. “ An ending for your people, not for mine, Bilbo Baggins!” he said once he had caught his breath. “Not all peoples arrange themselves in the manner of Men and Hobbits. My people are not great folk for making marriages.”
“So how do your folk make children?” Bilbo enquired, fascinated, before it occurred to him that this might be a somewhat delicate question. Gandalf shot him a most amused glance, and Bilbo went rather pink and thought to himself that he had been away from the society of decent hobbits for far too long.
“Oh well, children? That’s quite a different matter!” Beorn, thankfully, seemed entirely matter-of-fact and unoffended. “Bee-wolf had a good number of those. One or two of them might even have been with the King’s daughter, after she became a great Ruling Queen. That is how he is numbered among my ancestors. But I’m sure she had many lovers. She was a Queen, after all.”
“Really?” Bilbo exclaimed, somewhat taken aback. He himself had never got around to marrying, what with one thing and another.
But then, he thought, considering his current location and company, he was hardly the most respectable of Hobbits any more. And was there anything wrong with that? No, there was not, whatever the Sackville-Bagginses would say about it.
“Well,” he said. “There are a lot of ways of doing things that I never thought of before, and many wonders in the wide world.
“Perhaps we could have a tale from you tomorrow, Gandalf. You must have all sorts of stories from your adventures through the years. Why, I remember my mother telling me how you went all the way to the City of the old Kings once, through the land of the Horse-Kings. That must be a fine tale: surely they aren’t really Kings who are horses? Though now I’ve heard Beorn’s tale, I can’t help wondering.
“And then, there was another time, Beorn, when Gandalf told my mother all about Dorwinion, which I’ve only really heard of as a name on the distant edges of old stories. I remember I asked old Balin about Dorwinion at one point and he said the Dwarves knew very little about the place either, but that Gandalf was the man to ask, if anyone. Now I come to think of it, I’ve always wanted to ask Gandalf about that elf out of distant history that he mentions sometimes, so admiringly. Fëanor, was that the name? ”
“I might be able to dredge up the odd story,” Gandalf admitted, “If I ever manage to get a word in edgeways between fables that you think I might have told Belladonna, Bilbo.”
“This woman, Belladonna, Bilbo’s mother,” Beorn said. “You both speak of her often: she seems a person of importance. Let’s have a tale about her, next.”