The young woman was awakened by a strange noise: bees, giant bees. She tried to get up to get a better look, but realized she was blocked, so she turned around and saw her young blond dwarf holding her waist in an iron grip.
"Time to get up sleepyhead!"
Kili exclaimed, coming up behind his brother.
"Good morning Arya!"
"Good morning Kili."
"Why on earth do have to make all this noise early in the morning?"
Fili grumbled, turning to give his younger brother a reproachful look, but all he actually did was a funny and indecipherable expression, at the sight of which Kili burst out laughing, soon followed by Arya. The blond stuck his face into the straw sighing.
"Now you too? Really?"
He asked the young woman, who couldn't stop laughing, pretending to be offended, just before being himself infected by his brother's laughter.
"Hey, what's going on here? Why are you all laughing?"
"Nothing Bofur, forget it."
"Come on lads, we are waiting for you at the door."
Gloin added, walking after Bofur.
When the three youngsters joined the other members of the company, they found them intent on discussing what to do.
"Well, I say we should leg it. Slip out the back way."
Nori said, trying not to panic.
"Hey! I'm not running from anyone, beast or no!"
Replied Dwalin angrily.
"There is no point in arguing. We cannot pass through the Wilderland without Beorn's help. We'll be hunted down before we ever get to the forest."
Gandalf scolded them.
"Now, this will require some delicate handling. We must tread very carefully: the last person to have startled him was torn to shreds."
He continued, walking towards the door.
"I will go first and...Bilbo? You come with me."
He then stated, looking at the hobbit, who had just appeared from behind Bombur.
"Oh, uh, are you sure that's a good idea?"
The halfling asked him, somewhat worried.
"Yes, of course it is! And, um, Arya, it would be better if you came too."
The wizard added, turning to the girl, who nodded in response.
"Now, the rest of you, you just wait here and don't come out until I give the signal. And no sudden moves or loud noises, and don't overcrowd him. And only come out in pairs...no, actually, Bombur...um, you count as two so you should come out alone."
He said at last, just before leaving the house followed by the young woman and the hobbit.
Once outside, Gandalf cleared his throat.
Bilbo stated, looking at him a little uneasily.
"Nervous?! What nonsense."
He replied restlessly.
Gandalf began, once they got close to Beorn.
He repeated in a slightly higher tone of voice. Beorn stopped chopping wood and looked at him.
"Who are you?"
He asked gravely.
"I'm Gandalf, Gandalf the Gray."
"Never heard of him."
"I'm a wizard. Perhaps you've heard of my colleague Radagast the Brown. He resides in the southern borders of Mirkwood."
"And who is this little fellow?"
Beorn inquired, pointing to the hobbit and getting defensive.
"Oh well, this would be Mister Baggins from the Shire."
Gandalf explained immediately.
"He's not a dwarf, is he?"
"Why, no. No, he is a hobbit. A good family and unimpeachable reputation."
Said the wizard, patting Bilbo on the back. The halfling smiled, trying to hide his fear.
Then Gandalf glanced at Arya.
"And she is ..."
"I know your name."
Beorn stated, turning in the direction of the young woman, who was now left speechless.
"What do you want?"
The skin-changer continued gruffly, shifting his gaze back to Gandalf.
"Well, simply to thank you for your hospitality. You may have noticed that we took refuge in your lodgings here last night."
Saying this, the wizard pointed the house behind him with his hand and, in pairs of two, their fellow dwarves came out. Beorn looked at them with attonishment and anger, until his gaze fell on Thorin, who came out last, then his expression changed: he seemed almost curious. The skin-changer spoke to the girl.
"Do you trust them?"
He asked her in an almost cordial tone. Arya nodded firmly and soon they were all gathered in the dining room for breakfast.
"So you are the one they call Oakenshield."
Beorn began, turning to Thorin, who nodded.
"Tell me, why is Azog the Defiler hunting you?"
"You know of Azog? How?"
Thorin replied, amazed, as always, to hear that name.
"My people were the first to live in the mountains, before the Orcs came down from the north. The Defiler killed most of my family, but some he enslaved."
Beorn explained, keeping his voice calm and icy at the same time. Only then did those present realize the thick iron handcuffs surrounding the man's wrists.
"Not for work, you understand, but for sport. Caging skin-changers and torturing them seemed to amuse him."
He continued, with the same calmness and coldness, but in his eyes you could see all the pain and the suffering, all the anger that he had carried inside for years.
"There are others like you?"
Bilbo asked cordially.
"Once there were many."
Beorn replied, this time letting a hint of bitterness shine through in his voice.
Asked the hobbit.
"Now there's only one."
The man asserted firmly, determined to close the subject. An eerily silence fell in the room, but it was again broken shortly after by the skin-changer.
"You need to reach the mountain before the last days of autumn."
"Before Durin's Day falls, yes."
Gandalf said, stopping his pipe for a moment and giving Thorin a worried look.
"You are running out of time."
"Which is why we must go through Mirkwood."
The wizard then explained.
"A darkness lies upon that forest, fell things creep beneath those trees. I would not venture there, except in great need."
The skin-changer added.
"We will take the Elven Road, their path is still safe."
"Safe? The Wood Elves of Mirkwood are not like their kin. They're less wise and more dangerous."
Beorn warned them, knowing those lands very well. While listening to their host's words, Thorin started pacing thoughtfully around the room.
"But it matters not."
The man continued, arousing everyone's amazement.
"What do you mean?"
Thorin then asked him, definitely worried.
"These lands are crawling with Orcs, their numbers are growing and you are on foot. You will never reach the forest alive."
He explained. The young Dwarf King stared at the man with apprehension. Then the skin-changer got up and approached him.
"I don't like dwarves, they're greedy and blind, blind to the lives of those they deem lesser than their own."
The man ruled severely.
"But Orcs I hate more. What do you need?"
He eventually asked, turning to Thorin, who had remained impassive throughout the speech, but who now looked at him gratefully.
"We must be fast, so ponies and horses. And we'll certainly need some food."
The dwarf promptly responded.
Shortly afterwards the whole company was at the back of the house, intent on saddling the ponies, tying to the saddle also the blankets and provisions given to them by Beorn. Meanwhile, Arya and Gandalf approached the skin-changer to thank him and, knowing the wizard, to have some clarification.
"You will leave my ponies before you enter the forest."
The man asserted firmly.
"You have my word."
Gandalf hastened to reply. As soon as he finished talking the attention of the three was attracted by the croaking of crows and the rustling of the trees right behind them.
"We're being watched."
The wizard declared with a worried expression.
"Yes. The orcs will not give up. They will hunt the Dwarves until they see them destroyed."
"Why now? What has made the Defiler crawl from his hole?"
Gandalf asked, also voicing the thoughts of the young woman at his side.
"There is an alliance between the orcs of Moria and the sorcerer in Dol Guldur."
The man explained.
"And are you sure of this?"
The wizard asked again, surprised and frightened by this statement.
"Packs have been seen gathering there. Each day, more and more come."
Beorn informed them, looking around restless.
"What do you know of this sorcerer? The one they call the Necromancer."
Arya then stepped in, remembering the conversation she had had with Radagast some time ago.
"I know he is not what he seems. Fell things are drawn to his power. Azog pays homage to him."
Beorn replied, getting increasingly worried.
"Gandalf, time is waisting."
The rebuke of Thorin, already on the back of his pony, reached the ears of the wizard and young woman, who then began to walk towards the company.
"There is more!"
Beorn's worried voice called them back, making them turn around.
"Not long past, word spread the dead had been seen walking near the High Fells of Rhudaur."
Arya looked at the skin mutator in bewilderment.
The young woman exclaimed with growing fear.
"It's true. There are tombs in those mountains."
"Yes. Yes, there are tombs up there!".
Gandalf said calmly, waking from his thoughts. The skin-changer looked around restlessly, and then rested his gaze again on his interlocutor.
"I remember a time when a great evil ruled these lands, one powerful enough to raise the dead. If that enemy has returned to Middle Earth I would have you tell me."
The man asserted firmly.
"Saruman the White says it's not possible. The enemy was destroyed and will never return."
The wizard replied with conviction.
"Saruman is wrong, he doesn't want to see the truth!"
Arya strongly asserted. There had always been some hatred between the eldest of the Istari and the young Isildur's heir: she considered him proud and blinded by power, while he claimed that the girl, like her brother, was just an orphan too scared of her past to take the reins of her future in hand.
"And what does Gandalf the Gray say?"
The skin-changer then asked, turning to the sorcerer, but without the latter being able to answer the question: too much doubts haunted his mind, the possibility that Sauron had returned, however, was certainly not to be underestimated.
"Go now, while you have the light. Your hunters are not far behind."
Then the man suggested, sensing the thoughts of his interlocutor.
Arya turned to Beorn one last time before leaving.
"How did you know who I was?"
She asked curiously.
"Rumors go round about you, the legend of the Mother of Dragons has reached all corners of Middle Earth."
Arya nodded, knowing that she couldn't hide her name much longer, and that she couldn't ignore her fate.
"Your dragons saved me once. I owe you."
He continued. Arya looked at him amazed and worried at the same time. If her dragons had gotten too noticed it would have been a problem: if they had been sighted near the cities of men, people would have been be afraid of them, unable to recognize from a distance a scary-looking creature but pure of heart. And when a man's afraid, he is led to do terrible things.
"Your secret is safe with me, if that's what you want, but go now."
Beorn eventually asserted. Arya nodded in thanks, and followed Gandalf to their other fellows.