Legolas led Arya through several corridors to the throne room. This was the heart of Thranduil's palace, the largest and most majestic of the underground caverns, enlightened by a great number of torches and lamps, which brightened the immense columns, engraved and decorated with paintings and mosaics. In the center of the room, the King of the wood elves sat on his throne, which was also carved in wood, and raised above the floor, as if to demonstrate the pride of its owner. Thranduil was looking at the girl carefully, studying every little detail, searching for weak points to use to his advantage. Arya knew that and remained impassive under his watchful gaze.
"My son told me you speak our language."
The king asserted out of the blue, coming down from his throne and walking towards her.
"Yes, My Lord, it is true."
She confirmed with confidence.
"And why does a young woman know Sindarin? It is certainly not common the study of such a language among men."
"I am sure, My Lord, that you are aware of the large volumes of Sindarin in the library of Minas Tirith, accessible to all."
Thranduil's lips curled into a grin: that girl certainly had spunk. He took a closer look at her, still searching for something to use to his advantage, but there was no sign of uncertainty in her manner. It was then that the king noticed a glint around girl's neck. He approached her to get a better look at it. It was a chain with a pendant, a ring. Arya noticed Thranduil's interest in the base of her neck and missed a heartbeat. The king kept moving closer at a slow pace, his eyes fixed on that ring: he knew he had seen it before, he knew it was important, but why? It was a matter of a moment, an intuition, Thranduil's eyes widened and stared at the young woman.
"Tell me, what is Arathorn's daughter doing in a company of dwarves?"
He asked looking her straight in the eye, her face inches from hers.
"With all due respect, your majesty, I do not believe my business with the dwarves concerns you."
Arya answered seriously. She was angry. She was definitely angry, but more with herself than with Thranduil really, for not having hidden the ring better.
"They became of my concern me in the moment you decided to pass through my kingdom in a mad attempt to reclaim a treasure that has been lost for years!"
Thranduil said, raising his voice. The sovereign moved away from the young woman and turned his back to her.
"That treasure belongs to Thorin by birthright, it doesn't seem so crazy to me that he wants to get it back!"
Then the girl replied.
"It is going be difficult locked in my dungeons, I'm afraid. I offered Oakenshield a deal he'd better accept, but he's too stubborn and arrogant to understand. You will stay here until I decide otherwise."
The Elven King concluded firmly, before ordering his son to return the young woman to her cell.
Legolas put a hand on Arya's shoulder and pushed her forward telling her to move, she offered no resistance and, after having cast one last glance at Thranduil, began to walk. When they were far enough from the throne room they slowed their pace.
"Are you all right?"
The prince asked her, trying to keep his tone cold and detached. Arya was surprised by the question and smiled.
"I am fine, thank you."
She answered confidently.
"My father can be difficult sometimes."
Then it was Legolas' turn to smile at her.
"Well, to me it seemed that you were perfectly able to stand up to him."
He then continued. Arya looked at him, even more amazed than before: she expected him to be annoyed by her behavior towards his father and his king, certainly not to compliment her! Evidently, however, Legolas was perfectly aware of Thranduil's arrogance, to the point of admitting that a lesson from time to time would have been useful.
In a short time, the two reached the dungeons and the girl returned to her cell.
"May I ask you a question?"
Legolas demanded, before snapping the lock. The young woman nodded in his direction, waiting for him to continue.
"Can you tell me how you ended up in a company of dwarves?"
Arya smiled and shook her head slightly.
"And you can tell me why you constantly try to imitate your father when, instead, you are his opposite..?"
Legolas stiffened at that question: he didn't expect it.
"I'll tell you when I know."
He replied seriously. And it was true, he didn't know why he tried to look like his father, perhaps to please him, or simply because he had always seen him as a reference figure.
"I'll tell you when I know."
Arya then answered to his first question. He smiled at her again, closed the cell and left the dungeons at a brisk pace.
The time was impossible to establish in those prisons, Arya couldn't have told if it was night or day, but she knew they couldn't have stayed there much longer: Durin's Day was upon them.
"I'll wager the sun in on the rise. Must be nearly dawn."
Bofur complained, interrupting her thoughts.
"We're never gonna reach the mountain, are we?"
Ori continued, voicing everyone's fears.
"Not stuck in here you're not."
Bilbo whispered, suddenly appearing in front of Thorin's cell and starting to free, one by one, all his companions.
Balin exclaimed happily. The unexpected return of the hobbit had restored hope to the hearts of the dwarves, who, all clinging to the bars, anxiously awaited their turn to be freed.
"Shh! There are guards nearby."
Bilbo scolded him, before moving to open the next cell.
"I'm so glad to see you, my friend."
Arya declared, as the hobbit reached her door.
"Me too, Arya."
He smiled at her, snapping the lock. The young woman hurried out and began looking around for a certain blond dwarf when two strong arms caught her by the waist. Fili held her close, resting his forehead between her shoulders, and then loosened his grip just a moment, to allow her to turn around in the embrace and tie her arms behind his neck.
"You have no idea how much I missed you."
The dwarf whispered, pulling away from her just enough to look into her eyes.
Arya smiled, she had missed him too: physically they had been separated only for one night, but psychologically they had been since they had passed the Elven Gate at the entrance of Mirkwood.
"I think I actually have an idea."
Replied the girl, placing a sweet kiss on his forehead.
Once all his companions had been freed, Bilbo ran at the head of the group to guide them to the exit.
"Ori, not that way. Down here, follow me!"
The hobbit intimated, drawing the attention of his companions, and then began to descend along the underground corridors.
He murmured all of a sudden, motioning them to head for a series of barrels. One moment. The barrels, the casks, the shelves with bottles of wine...they were in a cellar!!!
"I don't believe it, we're in the cellars!"
Kili exclaimed, voicing Arya's thoughts.
"You're supposed to be leading us out not further in!"
Bofur then said concerned.
"I know what I'm doing!"
Bilbo replied, getting nervous.
"Everyone, climb into the barrels, quickly!"
He then continued with decision, hearing voices coming from the upper floors: the elves must have noticed their escape.
"Are you mad? They'll find us!"
Dwalin roared out in the direction of the half man.
"No, no. They won't! I promise you. Please, please, you must trust me!"
The hobbit said again fervently.
"Do as he says."
Thorin's voice put an end to the protests and all the dwarves obeyed.
"But...the barrels are only thirteen and we are fifteen! We won't all fit!"
Ori pointed out worried, as his companions had already begun to climb into the barrels.
"We'll fit, Ori, don't worry."
Arya asserted confidently, turning to Fili as if asking permission to share the barrel. The dwarf, sensing her idea, nodded with a smile and, after having entered, held out his hand to invite her to do the same. The girl then slipped nimbly into it and crouched beside him.
"What do we do now?"
Bofur asked, once all the members of the company had taken their places in the barrels.
"Hold your breath."
Bilbo replied, then turned and pulled the lever behind him. The beam under them began to tilt causing them to slide into the river below. It was an underground stream that ran through the caves below Thranduil's palace.
"Well done, Master Baggins!"
Thorin exclaimed, as Bilbo also caught up with them by falling into the water and clinging to Nori's barrel.
"Go, come on! Let's go! Hold on tight!"
He continued, using the spikes of rock to push himself forward, and being immediately imitated by his companions. Soon the group reached a small waterfall, which allowed them to gain speed, feeding them into the current of the river.