Very many things have happened in my long life since the Ring of Power first came into my possession. I could never for a moment have anticipated, that day I left the comfort of my neat Hobbit Hole in the Shire, what heights of wonder and majesty I would reach, what servants I would one day command. I was a simple gentleman of simple means. Hardly someone you might expect would one day rule over the many lands and many races of Middle Earth.

How did I come to this? Well, you might ask. And most creatures bold enough to question me would not be particularly fond of the consequences. I write this though, my Red Grimoire, not for the common folk who without my guidance would be constantly warring and fighting and hating one another, but for my nephew Frodo, who is dear to me, for all that he has little stomach for the necessities of power.

After the Ring first came to me, I remember the fear that filled my heart during that panicked chase through the depths of the mountain. It was dark as pitch without the glow from my little elven blade, and all I had to tell me of my pursuer were his anguished cries for his 'precious'. I was feeling my way more than anything. I didn't know those tunnels, not like he did. I admit it only because I was an entirely different creature then, but I was terrified. The passage closed in around me, and then all of a sudden I was stuck, and for a too-long moment it seemed no amount of straining and sucking in my stomach would fit me through that narrow gap. The creature Gollum was almost upon me. And then, with a fearful cry, the buttons of my fine waistcoat burst free and I slipped through the crack, falling as I did so.

The Ring, clasped until then in the sweat-slick palm of my hand, flew free. It came down onto my finger, and in that moment everything changed.

Instead of the black worse than a moonless night, the world around me was rendered in ghostly form, all colour drained from it, but visible as at twilight. Gollum leapt in after me, but instead of falling on me and dashing my head against the stone as I had feared, he twisted and turned and looked around in frustration, seeing nothing. I gaped at him, not knowing quite whether this was some kind of trick. A pretty poor and unpleasant kind of trick if it was, I thought.

I worked out pretty sharpish however that I truly was invisible, and that it was the work of the Ring that had come to me so fortunately. I watched the pitiful creature scramble off down the passage-way, and pulling myself to my feet, was quick to follow after him. After all, it was always possible that he would unwittingly lead me right to the exit. And luckily for me, that turned out to be the case. After many twists and turns Gollum paused at a narrow junction, and I could see a change in the light shining down from the left hand side. I had my sword out, just in case I had to use it. I was still unsure as to the limitations of my invisibility. A sound from me might easily draw attention. I even tried to make my breathing as shallow as possible as I crept closer.

Suddenly the creature ducked back inside our corridor, and with utter amazement at the neatness of the coincidence I saw Thorin's party running past, sprinting down the passageway and right by us. I took a step forward ready to call out to them before realising how foolish that would be. There was still Gollum to contend with.

The creature really was pathetic, crouching there whimpering behind a rock. In the twilight world I was able to get a good look at him, which had been impossible in the darkness before. He was pale, and so skinny the knobs of his spine stuck out the length of his back. There was something twisted about him. As I stood there, my sword poised at his neck, I felt a wave of revulsion sweep over me. I had been so terrified of this pitiful little thing. And why? I had a blade, and he had only his hands and loose rocks.

I drew the sword back, and with a blow much stronger than I had thought myself capable of, took his head clean off.

I wasn't expecting the blood. The body slumped to the floor and the surprisingly hot liquid painted a spray across my face. I shuddered and groped blindly for the scrap of dwarvish cloth that had served as my handkerchief the past few weeks, finally finding it and wiping my eyes convulsively. It was my first real taste of murder. I can now appreciate the value of violence when carefully and properly applied, but it would take me some while to come to that place.

Stepping gingerly over the corpse and the spreading pool of blood, I ran for the exit.

I managed to follow the trail left by Gandalf and the dwarves down the mountainside, a full and scrambling flight away from the darkness of that pit and the shock of what I had done, so counter to the character of any hobbit. I suppose I was still mostly in shock at that point, acting on instinct more than anything. Still wearing the Ring, the sun overhead was wan and pale, and it gave forth no heat. My fingers were tight around the hilt of my short sword.

When I finally did catch up with the company, it was to overhear angry words being thrown about, aimed at me, which wasn't exactly a surprise. It wasn't the first time I had heard these things said. I was soft and useless, and couldn't look after myself, and now I was lost into the bargain. As though I should have just let the goblins carry me off with the rest of them? And hadn't I just found my way out of the mountain by using my own wits, and slain an enemy into the bargain?

Well! I would show them. With the Ring, I could give them a surprise sure enough when I popped up in their midst.

Then Thorin spoke. "I'll tell you what happened," he said, in that low growl of his. "Master Baggins saw his chance and he took it! He has thought of nothing but his soft bed and his warm hearth since first he stepped out of his door."

I sank back against a tree. I could hardly deny his words, stated in such a plain fashion; I'd complained enough to myself about the hardships of our quest, some of it out loud were the others must have overheard me, and just before the floor of the cave opened up under our feet I had been willing to leave and head back to Rivendell. In fact, I'd thought that was what Thorin and many of the dwarves wanted, and so I ought to oblige them. I thought that it would make them happy, not having to look out for their incompetent so-called burglar anymore. But now I found that I wanted to continue. I wanted to go on, to help them with their quest. I could show them that I wasn't a burden, that I was starting to learn how to take care of myself.

"We will not be seeing our hobbit again," Thorin said. "He is long gone."

I made my decision. I slipped the Ring from my finger and stepped out into full view. "No," I said, in more defiant tones than I'd meant. "He isn't."

"Bilbo Baggins!" Gandalf said, with a great sigh of relief. "I have never been so glad to see anyone in my life. But whatever has happened to you?"

I followed the direction of his gaze and saw that I still bore my sword unsheathed, and that the blade was bloodied with gore. No doubt I hadn't really been able to get all of it off my face either, not without the aid of a mirror. Gandalf was not the only one showing concern; the faces of my companions were dismayed, and both Bofur and Thorin had taken several steps towards me as though afraid I was about to keel over at any second.

"It's nothing," I said. "Not my blood."

"Nor is it the blood of any orc or goblin either," Thorin said, his hand half raised from his side as though he was thinking of grabbing me and checking me over for wounds. "For they bleed black."

"It was just some creature that lived in the tunnels," I said, dismissively. "I'm not hurt, there's no need to worry. I found my way out just fine, thank you very much."

"We'd nearly given you up," Kili said.

"How on earth did you get past all those goblins?" his brother asked. I gave a little laugh thinking of all that had happened over... how long had it been anyway? I slipped the Ring into my pocket with a casual motion. Already some part of me recognised its value, and I was reluctant to tell the dwarves the full story. Thankfully I was spared – mostly – from having to thinking anything up on the fly by Gandalf.

"What does it matter?" he said, with a wide smile. "He's back!" I should have known at the time that the tricky Istari knew more than he was letting on, but I knew little of wizards then.

"It matters," Thorin said, pulling his hand away and glaring at me with something that was not quite anger. "I want to know. Why did you come back?"

It was a fair question – I could have slipped away, and with the power of the Ring, it would not have been too great a challenge to creep back through the web of caves and off towards home, with tales enough to tell of high adventure and danger. Truthfully, I was not even entirely sure myself. But standing there, searching for something that would satisfy the King-in-Exile, I found that the answer was right there before me.

"I know you doubt me," I said, "I know you always have. And you're right, I often think of Bag-End. I miss my books... and my armchair... and my garden. You see, that's where I belong, that's home. And that's why I came back, because you don't have one; a home. It was taken from you. But I will help you take it back, if I can." The very words had the weight of an oath behind them.

I realised then that that was my purpose. To see that the dwarves of Erebor were returned to their rightful homes. A dragon had stolen it, and no-one else in the whole of Middle-Earth, it seemed, had the courage or will to help them regain it. Were the truly no noble beings out there that might have given them aid? It seemed not. Not even the elves, who I had always heard from the tales were wise, and fair, and good, had turned their backs on Thorin and his kin. Small wonder that they hated them. I thought, then, of how I would feel to be driven out of the Shire along with all my neighbours and relations, and a deep anger woke up inside me. I had known it all along, but now it really resonated in a way it hadn't before. I was angry with the elves, and I was angry with the other dwarvish nations.

Unfortunately I didn't have time to think over this realisation in any more depth than that, because at that very moment we heard the howling of wolves, or rather in this case wargs, on the distant heights above us. There was nothing for it but to run, and so run we did, and all thoughts of the quest were driven out of my head in the scramble for safety.

Stuck in a tree hanging over the edge of a cliff, likely to fall to certain death, orcs and wargs blocking the only clear path through the flames and away, I had an almost irresistible urge to put on the Ring. It made little sense to me at the time; it was not as though being invisible would be a very great help to me in this situation. Even with the benefit of all I know of its powers now, it would not have availed me much then, for I did not know how to use it. In any case, I resisted. The heat of the flames could be felt even from half along the pine's trunk, and I had enough to be getting on with just hanging on to my precarious hold of the nearest branch.

The pale orc, Azog the Defiler if I recalled his name right, was howling to his kin in the language of orcs. The pack of wargs prowled at the edges of the fire. I had killed one of them earlier, the second life I had taken with my sword, although it had been more by accident than anything. It had been a beast, a predator, and I had killed it in the heat of the moment, not in cold blood like the creature Gollum. It had been an entirely different experience, with my heart fluttering in my chest with fear and the blood roaring in my ears.

Then all fell silent. Beside me Thorin was rising to his feet, his boots spread wide on the trunk near my head for stability. What on earth was he doing, I wondered? Surely he didn't intend to go down there? But I had underestimated his desire for vengeance, his need to strike out and destroy this... this symbol of everything that had gone wrong in the early days after Erebor's fall. The sparks in the breeze roiling around him like fireflies, he strode down the pine, Orcrist drawn, and charged.

I knew how good a fighter Thorin was – I had seen it enough times on our journey so far – but even so I found myself deathly afraid for him. He might have had a lot of unkind things to say about me, but neither were they entirely untrue, and I believed that at least part of his harshness was out of a concern for my own safety. Besides, if the stories I had heard from Balin and Bofur were true, he was used to being abandoned by his so-called allies. No wonder he thought the same of me. In any case, I did not want to see him hurt.

The albino warg that Azog rode leapt. Orcrist flashed in the light of the flames, but whatever wound it dealt was not deep. The weight of the warg bore Thorin to the ground, and the beast turned and wheeled to attack him again. Thorin had barely gotten his feet under him before the cruel mace the orc wielded caught him a mighty blow across the chest. I think I cried out in that moment, but in all the confusion it is hard to recall. If it wasn't for the ancestral mithril mail that I later learned the King kept concealed beneath his scaled steel jerkin, I have no doubt that it would have crushed his ribs and perhaps even killed him outright.

I scrambled upright then. It wasn't a conscious decision. I just knew that I had to do something. Before the passage under the mountains, before the demands this quest had forced me to meet, I would never have even thought about doing something so bold. I would have been paralysed by my fear. Not now. I might die, but I had to help Thorin. I respected him. I cared about him.

The warg's massive jaws closed around the King and he yelled in pain. Unable to take my eyes off him, I fumbled blindly at my belt for the hilt of my sword. As my fingers finally found it, the beast tossed Thorin high with a flick of its head and he landed heavily on an outcropping of rock near the edge of the cliff. At a command from Azog, one of the other orcs dismounted and made its way over to the fallen dwarf, a huge cleaver of a blade ready in its hand. But now my own blade was drawn, and light-footed as all hobbits, I charged.

With no thought for tactics or swordplay I tackled the orc and we grappled. It stank to high heavens even over the burning wood-smoke that filled the air, and it was strong too, frightfully so. But I was fighting for my life and for Thorin's, and I managed to find my own store of strength from somewhere. I forced my blade, faintly glowing blue, into the orc's chest. It shuddered and died beneath me. Black blood seeped from the wound, although, I noted distantly, there was much less of it than had sprung from Gollum's neck.

I rose to face the rest of the pack, but I did not do so alone. The others of our company joined the battle, and then everything was a confusion of limbs and swords and fur until the piercing cry of a bird of prey split the night air. Eagles, giant eagles, had come to our rescue.

After we had been dropped off, in some cases literally, at the top of a pillar of rock, and I had received a most unexpected, though quite welcome, embrace from Thorin Oakenshield, Gandalf began to lead us towards the home of a man he said he knew nearby, who would be able to supply us with food, since we had none, and treat Thorin's wounds, which were troubling him much more than he was willing to admit, so much so that he even needed some support from Balin and Dwalin when we were forced to climb down steeper parts of the hill.

The day began to turn surprisingly hot as it went on, for all that we were still in the foothills of the eternally snow-capped Misty Mountains. The walk was slow going and sweaty, and I was glad indeed when we stopped by the side of a stream so that Balin and Dwalin could force Thorin to rest, for he would not have done so if they hadn't near dumped him on his backside at the foot of a tree.

Bofur came over to me then. "You'll be wanting to give that little knife of yours a clean," he told me. I looked at him in surprise, for the concept had not crossed my mind. "It might be an elven blade and proof against rust, but that won't stop it sticking to the inside of your scabbard if you don't get the blood off."

"Oh, well yes, you're right," I said, pulling it out and noticing that it did not come easily. "Bother, and now I've made a mess in there, and I haven't the faintest clue how to clean that out."

"Here, I'll show you."

Bofur led me over to the stream and soon enough my short sword was bright and gleaming once again. I examined my reflexion in the blade, and noticed I was still filthy with gore and dirt on top of that. I had barely noticed it, which was a far cry from how neat and tidy I used to be back in the Shire. I was aware of Thorin watching me as I washed my face clean, though when I looked over at him, he was in conversation with Balin about something or other. There were faint lines of tension around his eyes. I was sure he was in pain, although of course he wasn't admitting it.

We did not tarry for very long there, but kept along to the house of this 'Beorn', as Gandalf had named him. After a few hours the forest began to open up into grassland, the trees growing fewer and more widely spaced. The air was heavy with the scent of wildflowers, and everywhere it seemed there were birds singing and darting around in the air. It was a very pleasant sight indeed after the mountains, although there was something far more wild about it than the homely scenery of the Shire that I could not help but compare it to.

Before long we encountered the first of the bees. They were huge things, fat and fluffy and each nearly as long as one of my fingers. They were busying themselves with great patches of clover, all different kinds, which sprung up in the meadows between the trees. A few buzzed over to investigate us, and one even came to sit on Gandalf's hand when he stretched it out. Our dull and grimy clothes clearly held little interest for them however, and they flew off back to their business, which was something of a relief.

"Jolly little fellows aren't they," Gandalf said, smiling. More like great, fuzzy menaces, I thought to myself, taking in the size of their stingers. "They are Beorn's bees. He has a fondness for honey, and no doubt we shall be feasting on that tonight."

Beorn's home, when we finally came upon it, was made up of a number of large halls with walls of wooden logs and low thatched roofs. There were gardens filled with many plants of vine and vegetables that I recognised from my own and others back home, but also plenty that were entirely foreign to me. Out in front of the largest hall was a figure that had to be the man himself.

Beorn was tall, taller even than Gandalf, and as stoutly built as any dwarf, massively muscled all over and just as hairy too. He was splitting logs into firewood with an axe at least as big as I was. He looked up at the sound of our coming and scowled, swinging the huge hatchet up onto his shoulder and watching us approach with wary eyes.

"A wizard, a party of dwarves, and one strange little foreign thing," he said. "I know none of you, and nor do I know what you are doing on my doorstep."

We all looked at one another, and seemed to reach a silent agreement that Gandalf ought to do the talking. He was meant to know this fellow, after all.

"I am Gandalf," the wizard said, "and this is Thorin Oakenshield and his company."

"Gandalf? Ought that name mean anything to me?"

"Well!" Gandalf said, looking just as put out as when I had failed to recognise him at the very beginning of this adventure. "You know my good friend Radagast the Brown, surely?"

"Aye, him I know. A good fellow, as these things go," Beorn replied. "And I suppose one wizard is much like another. What business have you here?"

One wizard certainly isn't much like another, but none of us was about to correct him when it seemed to be the thing that had thawed him towards our presence at least a little. "Hmm, well," Gandalf began. "You see we have been struck by rather a measure of ill fortune. We were passing through the mountain pass that was to have taken us south of your lands when we were set upon by goblins, and so we have lost all of our supplies and are somewhat out of our way."

Beorn raised a massive eyebrow. "Set upon by goblins, he says, without any further explanation. How exactly did you come to get away from them then?"

"The tale is a long one," Gandalf said, leaning on his staff. "And not fit to be told standing out in the open. Perhaps in return for its telling, we might prevail upon your hospitality? Not to mention that one of our number is injured, and his wounds need tending."

Beorn snorted with laughter. "You have got my interest up, so I suppose you might as well. I have food enough for even a company such as this, and I do very much want to hear your tale."

Thorin bowed, as much as his injuries would let him. "We are much obliged to you, Master Beorn," he said. I was a little surprised at how gracious he was being, but then I suppose Beorn was not, after all, an elf, which made all the difference. We followed the huge man inside. I for one, was greatly looking forward to being fed.

We ate well that night in Beorn's hall, and the bear-like man spread Thorin's wounds with some kind of paste that smelt of herbs and honey, which seemed to help him greatly. Our company certainly made the most of the safe harbour as the evening wore on, for although there was no more meat here than there had been at the elves' table, there was a great deal of fine bread, as well as milk, cream, honey, and a great variety of sweet cakes, some soft, some chewy, some sticky, and all delicious. There was beer too, rich and almost like solid food itself, and the first mead I had ever tasted. We all had our fill, and the dwarves quickly grew merry, and soon the singing started up. None of it was anything I knew, and things only grew more foreign to me when they meandered into songs in Khuzdul, but still the tunes were by turns hearty and haunting, and always fine to listen to.

As dusk fell we all sat before the fire and listened to Gandalf spin out the story of our journey so far as well as any bard or storyteller might have done. The rest of us had lost our baggage under the mountains, but the wizard had at least kept his, and was generous enough to share out the last of his store of Longbottom Leaf amongst those of us who wanted it. I took my time over my pipe that night, contented and full for the first time since Rivendell, knowing that this would likely be the last good Shire tobacco to be found this side of the mountains. Our host seemed to enjoy Gandalf's rendering of our tale greatly, much as he had enjoyed the songs of the dwarves before.

Eventually the hour grew late enough to force us to our beds. Beorn directed us to a heap of woollen blankets stored in a massive wooden chest, and whilst we were busy laying these out around the fire, he had a quiet word with Gandalf. Then, looking us over and snorting to himself, he turned and left the hall, striding out into the darkness. Gandalf cleared his throat to get the attention of those who hadn't looked up at the sound of the door closing.

"Beorn has some business out in the wilderness tonight," the wizard said, "but he instructed me to warn you not to step outside before the sun is up, for it is likely to be perilous."

"No fear of that," Glóin said. "It's far too comfortable in here to go wandering off into the dark for no good reason."

We settled down for the night after that. It wasn't long before snoring filled the air around me, but despite my full belly I found myself unable to drift off to sleep. I tossed and turned, but it was nothing to do with feeling uncomfortable, for indeed I was near enough the fire to be as warm and cosy as I could wish. No, the truth was I was just restless. The Ring was a heavy weight in my pocket, pressing against my stomach.

I crept out from under my covers and made my way carefully through between the sleeping forms of the rest of the company. The fire was starting to burn low, and the hall was filled with shadows. I made sure to pick up my sword and strap it firmly around my waist, and then I slipped the Ring onto my finger.

At once I was back in that ghostly world. The entirety of the hall was visible again, although where shadows might otherwise have fallen there was instead a kind of strange fog. I could see that one of the shutters over the window near the door had been left open a touch. I went over, stood up on the bench that had handily been placed there, and peered out. The moon was up, low over the forest, but even without its light I would have been able to see. The last time I had tried this I had been fleeing for my life, and I had had little time to look around and take stock of this strange way of viewing the world, but now I could look at things properly.

Things were not, in fact, entirely how they appeared under the light of the sun. The gardens and meadows looked at first glance the same, but peering closer, I saw that they seemed wilder, less cultivated. At times a great shadow in the shape of a bear seemed to move along the rows, and where it walked the vines and leaves waved under their own power, curling grasping tendrils and sticking out thorns that had not been there before. In the east the forest lay as if under a shadow, and on the horizon to the south-east dark clouds gathered, and strange, unnatural lights seemed to glow just on the edge of perception.

Nor was this a quiet world. Although the snoring of the dwarves and the odd crackle from the fire were muted, on the very edge of my hearing I could detect... something. Like a voice whispering to me. I thought that perhaps if only I strained and listened hard enough, I might be able to make out the words. I closed my eyes and focused in on it with all my might. It was coming from somewhere close by, very close.

It was coming from the Ring.

My eyes flew open and I stared down at the golden band around my finger. It seemed to glow with light and colour as nothing else in this twilight world did. I began then to have some inkling of the vast capabilities of this, most precious, treasure. I still could not understand what it was whispering to me, not entirely, but there was some sense that if only I kept at it, it would eventually become clear.

I don't know how long I was standing at that window looking at the Ring, but suddenly my attention was caught by noise coming from outside. There was a great growling from many throats, and when I turned my head up it was to see dozens of dark shapes coming towards the house from the meadows. Bears, a score or more, and in their midst with a limp something hanging from its jaws was the most massive bear I had ever seen, the size of a house at least. Its eyes were burning like coals, although whether that was real or a product of this ghost world I did not know.

The bears came and stood in the open courtyard before Beorn's hall. The huge leader approached the centre of their circle and threw down the thing it held with a violent and contemptuous jerk. Then it stood up on its hind legs, tall as a tree, and threw back its head. I was not sure quite what I was expecting, but it certainly was not for it to begin to shrink down and change, until at last was revealed the form of our host, naked, clad only in shadows.

Well! Gandalf certainly had not seen fit to mention that when he brought us here! No wonder we were not to walk outside during the night, if things like this were going on.

Beorn did not speak in the tongues of men to the other bears, but in some strange, growling language. He motioned to one of the larger brown bears which appeared to be dragging something behind it, and it brought up the bound form of an orc, struggling against ropes and biting at a gag. Beorn paced forward and ripped the piece of cloth free, though before the orc could utter more than a couple of what must surely have been curses he clapped one massive hand over its mouth, growling just like the bear he had been so recently.

"You will tell me what you and your filthy warg were doing in my woods at the Carrock's foot," he said, speaking now in Westron.

He released his hand, but got only more foul words for his trouble. Beorn responded by roaring in its face, spittle flying, baring heavy fangs that I was positive he had not had during his time with us that afternoon.

"Speak orc, or you shall wish you had!"

The thing cringed. "I will speak, Gakh will speak. Yes, yes, mercy!" It gulped several times, its eyes rolling about in its head as it took in the bears surrounding it. "We were searching, searching the woods for the dwarf-filth for Azog, great Azog the Defiler. They are his rightful prey, his to kill. So nearly we had them, up in the mountains, but eagles took them." The orc spat on the ground at this last part. "Ill luck."

"I am told they killed the Goblin King as well," Beorn said.

The orc licked at his teeth. "That's true," he said. "But how does the bear-man know that? Perhaps the dwarf-filth passed this way?"

"Perhaps they did," Beorn said, baring his teeth again, and then with a suddenness that took me quite off guard, he took hold of the orc's head and wrenched it clean off. I ducked back down behind the windowsill in shock. I saw once again my sword flashing through the air, Gollum's head falling to the ground, the spray of blood...

I did not regret doing it. It had been necessary. But it had still given me a nasty turn afterwards, and I was taking a while to get used to it. I needed to accustom myself to the realities of war and battle like the dwarves of our company were, if I was ever to prove myself as one of them. There would be other things that needed killing on the path to Erebor, other dangers to face.

I poked my head up again to see that the bears had begun to disperse. The orc's body lay where it had fallen, and Beorn was down on his knees by the other shape on the ground, whatever he had been carrying when he first arrived. He had out a long knife from somewhere and was cutting into it. Even in the twilight of the Ring-world, I could not see quite what he was up to.

Well, it seemed I had seen all that there was to be seen this night, at least. And now fatigue was starting to dwell on me as it had refused to before. I slipped down from the bench and padded back to my bed. Perhaps things would become clearer in the morning.

I slept in the next morning as a consequence of my late night wanderings, and when I woke it was to see Bofur standing over me and grinning. "Wake up lazybones," he said, "or there will be no breakfast left for you at all."

"What?" I mumbled, raising my head blearily, then scrambling to my feet when it sunk in that he was talking about food. "Breakfast? Where is it?"

"Mostly inside us," he said, "but there's a little left out on the veranda. Beorn is nowhere to be found, but there was food set out when we woke up. There's bread and butter, cheese and scrambled eggs..."

He kept on in a teasing sort of tone but I had already heard enough and headed out with all speed. I was a hobbit after all, and we always wake up hungry. There was enough left for me to scrape together a quite satisfactory meal, and after that I wandered out to see if there was anything of note where the bears had had their meeting. The grass was trampled down in many places, and there was black blood just visible if you knew where to look, but other than that there was little to see.

There was no sign of Beorn all that day, and none of Gandalf either until suppertime. I spend the day wandering around the gardens and listening to more of Balin's tales over lunch. I stopped in to see Thorin too, who through some miracle had agreed to lay by the fire and rest.

"Ah," he said when he saw me, smiling as he had done just before hugging me after our escape from Azog, "it is our courageous hobbit! Come and join me. I have not yet congratulated you on the slaying of your first orc."

I went and sat next to him. He propped himself up on one arm to look at me. The afternoon sun streaked down on us from the smoke-hole in the ceiling high above. "I don't know if I would call myself courageous," I said, although I appreciated the compliment. "I didn't really think about what I was doing. I just knew that I had to do something."

"You might not call yourself a warrior," Thorin said, clapping me on the shoulder. "But you are certainly shaping up to be one in future. I told Balin at the beginning of our quest that all I asked of our companions was loyalty, honour, and a willing heart, and you have all three."

I felt myself blushing at his kind words, so different from those he had thrown my way in the past. I supposed that I had changed a great deal since leaving home, and was likely to change a great deal more too as we went on. It could only be a good thing. I wanted to pull my weight as a member of the company.

"We shall have to see that you learn how to use that knife of yours," Thorin continued. "For although you don't lack enthusiasm, your skill could use some work."

"You've got that right," I said, thinking of my wild flailing at Gollum by the deep lake, and again standing between Thorin and Azog's warg-pack.

"Perhaps... when we leave this place..." Thorin said, oddly hesitant. "I might teach you myself?"

For some reason my heart quickened at the suggestion, and my throat was oddly dry as I replied. "I would like that very much."

Thorin nodded firmly, and we sat together in a warm and companionable sort of silence for some while after that until Fili and Kili poked their heads through the door and told me to come outside, for Dwalin and Bifur were having a wrestling match, and surely I wanted to see the outcome of that.

Gandalf returned that night in time for the evening meal, although he said nothing of where he had been until after he had eaten. When finally he pushed his plate away, he told us something that dismayed us all very much.

"I am afraid I cannot stay with you all for very much longer," he said, "indeed, I shall be with you only as far as the borders of the Greenwood, which now goes by the ill name Mirkwood."

"And do you mean to come back?" Thorin asked angrily. "Or perhaps you have deemed our quest no longer to your liking. Do you hold the contract you signed to so little value?"

"I am not abandoning you," Gandalf said, sounding rather irritated himself. "But there is business to be seen to nearby that requires a wizard's attention. Those of my order have responsibilities greater than even your quest, Thorin Oakenshield."

"But we need you to help us kill the dragon," Ori said, looking very nervous.

"Oh, I think you will not find it quite the challenge you seem to expect," Gandalf said, with a twinkle in his eye. I do not know even now quite what he meant by that, for I sincerely doubt he could have foreseen the way that particular story ended. Perhaps he was merely being mysterious in the way of all wizards.

There was much grumbling between the members of the company at this unwelcome news, but apparently Gandalf had not actually sworn to come any further than the Greenwood in either word or the terms of whatever contract he had signed, nor was he expecting any share of the treasure once we eventually claimed it, so there was little anyone could do to convince him to stay. Even I knew that wizards were stubborn, and largely went wherever they pleased.

Eventually Gandalf interrupted the complaints by bringing up the matter of where he had been all day. It turned out that he had been tracking some of the bears from the meeting the night before (although he made no mention of that fact that Beorn was one of them – perhaps he did not wish to trouble us further with the revelation that our host was a shapeshifter) and had followed one to the river near the Carrock, back the way we had come. The dwarves then fell to a discussion of what all this strangeness meant. I said nothing. Beorn's secret was not mine to reveal, and if Gandalf hadn't spoken of it I felt, at the time, that he must have a good reason for it.

When we did finally turn in for the night, I managed to fall asleep along with the others, although I did wake at some point during the night to hear snuffling and growling coming from outside once again. I didn't get up to see what it was. We were due to leave in the morning, and I wanted one good night's sleep before we set off on our journey again.

Beorn had reappeared the next morning, and seemed to be in good spirits at breakfast. He was generous with provisioning us for the road, giving us strong, well-made packs filled with solid cakes baked with honey, seeds, and nuts that he promised would keep for a good long while. He also gave us the loan of fourteen ponies and one horse for Gandalf. The animals apparently lived wild on his land and were of uncommon intelligence. We were to leave them at the border of the forest, and they would find their own ways home.

He also gave us some good advice about the forest we were to pass through. Although it had once been fine and fair, a shadow had come over it in the past months, the same shadow that Radagast had brought us news of. The game was no longer good to eat, and many sources of water had turned foul. There was a great river that came down from the mountains of Mirkwood that he had been told (I suspected by his bears, although I didn't know if they could change their shape as he could, or were bears in truth) now put a terrible enchantment on any who so much as touched its waters, casting them into a sleep of forgetfulness that it was nigh impossible to wake from.

He also told our company about a little-used road further to the north of the one that Thorin had originally intended to lead us by. It went closer to the elven realm of King Thranduil than I suspected he was comfortable with, but it was much more direct, and also a little safer if Beorn was to be believed. But one of the things he emphasised above all else was that whatever way we took, we must not stray off the path, for dark and dangerous things lurked under the eaves of the forest, drawn by whatever evil had invaded it, and we would surely perish.

We set out around mid morning, and I finally found out what had happened to that orc and Beorn's other prize as we passed a pair of tall chestnuts on the trail east. A tall pointed stake had been driven into the earth between the trees and the orc's head impaled upon it. A warg pelt was nailed to the left hand tree, and the two corpses hung, strung up by their back legs, from the branches of that on the right. I stared at the gory sight, unable to look away. Our host was a dangerous man indeed, but, I suspected, only to those who crossed him. I was just glad that Gandalf had persuaded him we were not trespassers; else I hate to think what might have happened to us.

The gate to the northern road was four days ride away. When we camped for the first night I had my first lesson with Thorin under the light of the setting sun, practising basic movements and footwork with branches in place of blades. When I finally lay down for the night I was bone-tired and covered in sweat, yet even so sleep was once again elusive. The Ring was weighing heavily on my thoughts. I had a deep curiosity to know just what it was trying to whisper to me.

It was not long before I gave into the urge to rise and put it on. The twilight world snapped into place around me, and the whisper started to murmur its way into my ears. I did not go wandering, merely sat cross-legged upon my blankets with my hands folded in my lap, playing with the Ring upon my finger, twisting it back and forth, listening.

Tell me what you are, I thought. Tell me what you can do.

It seemed that the quiet words might be a little louder than the last time I had heard them, but I was not sure. I frowned. It did not seem as though this was going to be a quick process; rather the reverse. Whatever answers the Ring held, wherever it had come from, whatever its powers were, I would have to coax them out of it. There was something almost... stubborn about it, although it seemed at the time foolish to apply emotions to an inanimate object.

But of course, the Ring was far from inanimate, as I was to find out.

Before I finally went to sleep that night I looked up and saw a shape against the horizon of a nearby knoll. It was a great bear, black with glowing eyes. Beorn was still keeping his eye upon us. Yet I felt more comforted than afraid. He was a thing of the wild, not a thing of evil, I recognised that much. We were under his protection. There was little need to fear.

I rested well and deeply that night, and dreamed of fire.

Every night until we reached the eaves of Mirkwood, after my lessons with Thorin, I spent hours focusing on the Ring. Each time the words grew clearer, until at last I began to be able to make out a few of them – 'rule', and 'darkness', and 'find'. I was getting closer, and it made all the effort satisfying. I knew that it could not be much longer before I unlocked what was surely only the first of many mysteries that the Ring concealed. And I did not overly mind the loss of sleep. For whatever reason I seemed to need it much less than I was used to.

We found the forest gate on the morning of the fourth day since leaving Beorn's halls, as we had expected. We sent the ponies back then, although none of us was exactly enthusiastic about it. The provisions we split amongst ourselves appropriate to our strength. Where once I might have complained about the heavy load, now I was almost glad of it, for it meant that we had food enough to last us a good long while, barring accident, and I could now appreciate the value of that.

"I am sorry to say I must leave you here," Gandalf told us at this point, watching us make our preparations, still on horseback. "I will be taking this faithful fellow back by a longer route – one good Beorn knows about, let me assure you."

"I don't suppose you're likely to tell us what is so urgent that you must see to it right away?" Thorin asked.

Gandalf tapped the side of his nose. "A wizard never reveals his secrets," he said.

"But it has something to do with this shadow that has fallen over the Greenwood, has it not?" Balin asked. Gandalf made no reply other than a smile. It was clear enough to me that the elderly dwarf had hit on the truth of it, but I was not to hear any more of the Istari's doings to the south for some time, and even then it was at least half by conjecture. But that is getting ahead of myself.

"Now I bid you farewell," Gandalf said, turning his horse around. "Good-bye to all of you. Remember to stay on the path, otherwise you are likely never to find it again, and there will be no wizard coming along to help you out of trouble next time."

"Is this really the best route to take?" I asked him, looking with an uncertain eye at the dark path beneath low, gnarled branches draped with ivy. "Couldn't we just go around?"

"Not unless you wanted to go many hundreds of miles out of your way," Gandalf replied. "And it would be no safer. To the north are the Grey Mountains, the haunts of many tribes of goblins and orcs, and to the south is Dol Guldur, the dark ruins of a stronghold that was once home to a very great evil. No Bilbo, stick to the path, and with some luck you all might come out the other side alive." And with this he smiled again, and rode off, calling back any number of 'good-byes' to us and leaving me feeling rather worse than I had before he had spoken.

"No doubt we will see him again when it is most inconvenient for us and most convenient for him," Thorin said, shouldering his pack and checking that Orcrist was firmly belted to him. "You never know with wizards."

Thus we set off beneath of the bows of a pair of entangled oaks that made up the gate to the forest, into the depths of Mirkwood the Great.

It was very dark in the forest, as we soon discovered. The path wound its way between the boles of huge trees, narrow enough to force us into single file and bounded on either side by a few bushes and vines with small numbers of dark leaves that soaked up what little sun there was. There was grass, of a sort, but patchy and dry. More often there was some kind of fungus growing, slimy and horrid-looking, and thick carpets of dead leaves. I had little trouble understanding why it had earned the name Mirkwood. I could see only a little way in the dim light, and there was a foul feeling about the place.

As we continued on, I began to become aware that for all the ill aspect, there was life here. A few times I spotted black-furred squirrels leaping from branch to branch over our heads, or pausing half way up tree trunks to watch us passing, their little eyes beady-bright and strangely unnerving. There were noises from the forest, animal noises of grunting, shuffling and high-pitched calls that sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. No bird-song though. Anything that could fly seemed to have deserted the wood. I thought I spied massive cobwebs as well, strung between trees off in the murk, but I could have been wrong. Certainly there were none on the path, or even too near it.

The very air was heavy, still and quiet without a breath of wind. It seemed to bear down upon all of the company. Even Fili and Kili, who could normally be counted on to provide a light-hearted comment when the situation called for it, and often when it didn't, were silent and pale.

"It might be as dark as a mine," Bofur said to me, for I was walking in front of him and behind Thorin, "but it has none of the charm. I think I even prefer those goblin infested tunnels."

"What do you expect of a forest that is home to elves?" Thorin growled, glancing back at us. "No doubt it is particularly inhospitable to any dwarves that set foot in it."

I was pretty sure that none of this was the doing of elves, but I wasn't about to say so. It had been clear even after the first few weeks of travelling with the King-in-Exile that he could carry a grudge like even my blasted relatives the Sackville-Bagginses might have hesitated at, and I certainly was not the hobbit to change his mind.

We went on in this way, sweating in the heat of late summer, drinking only very sparingly from the water-skins we had filled before entering the forest, until the light began to fade and it became hazardous to go on any further. There was no handy clearing to make camp in, and the words of Gandalf were still very fresh in all our minds to risk going off even a little to one side or the other to look for one. We had to make do with the strip of clear, dry, ground the path gave us. The tangled roots of the trees to either side were too gnarled and uncomfortable to sleep on, and although there were not many bushes or shrubs, the dead leaves that blanketed the earth were damp with some unpleasant, odorous slime and would quickly have soaked through our blankets.

It was too early for sleep. The darkness had come upon us faster here than it would have out in the open. Glóin, Dori, Nori, Fili and Kili went off up and down the path for a short way to find firewood, but came back empty-handed. What deadwood there had been was wet with the same substance that slicked the leaves, seemingly the produce of the evil-looking fungus that grew everywhere, or riddled with beetles and other crawling things.

"We may as well continue with your sword lessons," Thorin told me. "If nothing else, it might provide some entertainment for the night."

I sighed. "I'm truly as pathetic as all that?" Mind, it did not bother me as much as it would have before the journey under the mountains. Even if I didn't know how to wield my sword properly, that hadn't stopped me killing things with it.

Thorin cleared his throat, looking almost embarrassed for some reason. "I did not mean to say... I meant no harm by it. You have proved yourself in battle and I would not have you think I was making fun of you."

"Oh, no fear. I know I probably look a right sight," I replied. "But that's what this is all about, isn't it, and I'm very grateful that you're taking the time to show me how to fight properly."

"Think nothing of it," Thorin said gruffly. "Now, let's see how you are getting on."

I suspect that our practise that evening probably did offer a great deal of entertainment to the other members of our company. They certainly seemed to enjoy shouting out tips and encouragement of their own at me as I tried to fend off Thorin's skilled attempts to poke me in the ribs with the sharp end of a stick (one we had fortunately happened to bring with us, although it wasn't enough by itself to give up to make a fire) using a wooden spoon borrowed from Bombur.

Oin was on first watch that night, for all the good it did. By that point things had gotten so dark that it was impossible to see a hand waved in front of your face. It was with a great deal of relief that I slipped the Ring on and saw the world around me once again, even if it was only in shades of grey. To my surprise, the Ring seemed to pulse with energy here, as though something had woken it up. Sitting gazing at it, I had the strangest sense that it was looking around, like some ghostly presence within the simple golden band was peering at the forest, stretching out its awareness, searching for something.

What on earth are you doing, you strange thing? I asked it, frowning. For a moment that attention was focused on me, and I nearly flinched as a sudden image flashed before my eyes. A great, lidless, eye made of fire, slit-pupilled like a cat. It looked me over contemptuously, then turned away again. I found myself growing angry. What did this thing think it was? Alright, we hobbits are hardly the most fearsome creatures to look upon, but that didn't mean we weren't deserving of respect.

Although I did not fully understand the connection between the Ring and I at that time, it did not stop me being in some way aware that it existed. I channelled all my anger down that thin thread, focussing in on the image of that eye and willing it to hurt. I wasn't going to have a piece of jewellery thinking it was better than me! Something screamed, high-pitched, and the thing, whatever it was, that lived in the Ring retreated, curling up into a little ball around my finger.

It was muttering to itself, but now I could hear it. Now I knew what it was. In a language unfamiliar and in Westron, it recited a little couplet to itself.

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,

ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

One Ring to rule them all, one Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.

And that's what you are then? I asked it. This 'One Ring'?

Yes, I am Mairon's Ring, it hissed at me. And you are an usurper! Mind like silver! Mind like a mirror! Nothing to grasp! I should never have chosen you. Take me south, take me south I tell you! My true master is near, I can feel him. I must go to him. We must be one once more!

We aren't going south, I told the Ring. We're going east. And I should think that I am your master now, since I picked you up, and since it is my finger that you're on.

It didn't make any reply to that, but I could feel it sulking. Well! It seemed that this was much more than just a simple magic ring that I had laid my hands on. I didn't know exactly what it was capable of yet, but I was sure it was a lot more than just turning me invisible. Somehow I had found a valuable treasure, beneath a mountain at least, even if not the one we were heading towards.

Well indeed! What was I going to do with this Ring now?