“When winter first begins to bite
and stones crack in the frosty night,
when pools are black and trees are bare,
’tis evil in the Wild to fare.”
Wishing once more that he was safely home in his snug hobbit hole with a roaring fire and six sorts of cake for tea, Bilbo muttered the lines of the ancient rhyme and stared morosely at the crumbs of cram floating in his tin cup. Not even hot tea was capable of softening the Dwarvish waybread enough to make it chewable; let alone palatable.
“‘Tis not designed to please the stomach, Mister Baggins, merely to sustain you.”
With a grimace, Bilbo poked at a stubbornly large crumb, then lifted his head to ask the grey cloaked wizard. “What good is sustenance if you cannot stomach it?”
Gandalf laughed, “A question for you to ask the dwarves on your next adventure.”
“My next adventure!” exclaimed the hobbit, hastily setting aside the cup and taking up a strip of jerked beef. “‘My stars, one adventure has been quite enough for me. Let me return safely to my hole in Hobbiton, and I will never leave it again.”
“You have done so well with this one,” the wizard teased. “Are you not eager to venture further?”
“I should say not. I have more than enough tales to dine out upon for the remainder of my life.”
“Indeed you do, and will have more before you reach home.”
Bilbo chewed resolutely at the dried meat and attempted to ignore the thoughts resulting from such a statement. For whatever his reasons, Gandalf had elected not to follow the Forest Road through Mirkwood but to travel northward along its borders. The towering peaks of the Grey Mountains stirred the hobbit’s Tookish side into flights of the imagination from which his Baggins side recoiled in horror.
“Cheer up, Bilbo,” a pale green smoke ring hovered beside the wizard’s left ear before drifting away in the breeze, “only a few days until we arrive at Beorn’s home. His hospitality will chase away all memories of cram.”
Brightening at the thought of the shape changer’s honey cakes, Bilbo bustled about the campsite doing those chores which had become his tasks. After seeing that there was enough wood to last the night, he gathered up the collapsible leather bucket and trotted down the narrow path toward a small pond.
In the deepening twilight, the water appeared black and still. The icy cold of the water upon his toes as he dipped his bucket reminded him of the pool where he had found that horrible creature, Gollum. Bilbo shivered and peered into the shadows across the water.
Why did he keep expecting to see the pale, green light of eyes that had spent too many years in the darkness? Surely, the orcs would have captured and killed the miserable creature. Was there something out there? Why did he have the urge to reach into his pocket and slip on the ring to hide himself from unseen eyes?
Fumbling at his waist, Bilbo drew out Sting and held it up. The blade gleamed not with the bluish light signifying the presence of goblins but with the last rays of the fading sun. Whether it would respond to Gollum, he did not know; but the blade gave him a modicum of comfort.
“Why have you drawn your sword?”
The hobbit squeaked and dropped the water bucket with a splash. Whirling about he found Gandalf’s eyebrows bristling at him in a most disturbing fashion.
“I – I – I heard a noise across the water.” The lie spilled out before Bilbo could halt the words.
Gandalf straightened and listened; his eyes reflected the pale glow of newly appearing stars as he stared intently into the shadows.
“I sense none but the ordinary creatures of the night. Are you certain you heard something?”
The desire to tell the truth, the whole truth, about Gollum and the cave welled up in him momentarily. Though the dwarves had been told a tale of his finding the ring Bilbo had avoided telling Gandalf; but as had occurred outside the goblin’s cave, a small voice whispered, “Not just now.”
Why he thought it necessary to keep the ring hidden from the wizard he did not know; but he would continue to do so as long as possible. It was precious to him, and there was always the chance that someone might try to steal it if they knew of its powers.
Returning Sting to its sheath and retrieving his bucket, Bilbo exclaimed, “It must have been my imagination.”
Gandalf gave him a searching look, but allowed the moment to pass. “Come back to the fire then, my friend. I believe there are some dried apples left in one of the packs. A little snack will do you a world of good.”
Note from JRRT: Bilbo did not tell the true story of the finding of the Ring until Gandalf pressured him. This departure from truth on the part of a most honest hobbit was a portent of great significance.