11 The darkness of Mirkwood

It took half a day of uninterrupted riding for the company to reach the edge of Mirkwood. Now the elven gate was clearly visible before them in all its beauty, but the young woman sensed something strange in that beauty.

"The Elven Gate!"

Exclaimed the wizard from the head of the group, interrupting the girl's thoughts.

"Here lies our path through Mirkwood."

He then added, turning to the company. The dwarves began to dismount from the ponies while, looking around, they scanned the valley in search of some danger.

"No sign of the orcs. We have luck on our side."

Dwalin stated confidently. Those words, however, put Gandalf on alert, making him glance at the hills behind them. On one of them a brown bear was watching closely the company.

"Set the ponies loose. Let them return to their master."

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The wizard ordered quietly.

"This forest feels...sick, as if a disease lies upon it."

Bilbo said, approaching Arya. The young woman had stopped in front of the entrance and, with a very serious and worried look on her face, she was now carefully observing the light getting lost among the branches of the trees, until it disappeared completely there, where the path was no longer visible. Too much darkness infected that forest.

"I'm afraid this is not just a disease...it's darkness."

She then said in a calm, thoughtful voice, speaking to Bilbo. The hobbit turned to Gandalf again.

"Is there no way around?"

He asked him.

"Not unless we go two hundred miles north, or twice that distance south."

The wizard replied as he slowly entered the forest. He came out shortly after in a great hurry, attracting on him the questioning look of Arya who, together with Bilbo, started running after him.

"Gandalf what happened?"

The young woman inquired, now worried.

"Not my horse, I need it!"

Ruled the wizard, ignoring the girl.

"You're not leaving us?"

The hobbit promptly replied, worried at the prospect of crossing the forest without Gandalf as a guide.

"I would not do this unless I had to."

The sorcerer hastened to reply, looking down at his little friend.

"You've changed, Bilbo Baggins. You're not the same hobbit as the one who left the Shire."

He then continued, lowering his voice.

"I was going to tell you ..."

The hobbit began.

"I...I found something in the Goblin tunnels."

"Found what? What did you find?"

"My courage."

Bilbo then said confidently.

"Good. Well, that's good. You'll need it."

Gandalf concluded, then turned to the rest of the company.

"I'll be waiting for you at the overlook, before the slopes of Erebor. Keep the map and key safe. Do not enter that mountain without me."

The wizard declared in an authoritative tone.

"This is not the Greenwood of old. There is a stream in the woods that carries a dark enchantment, do not touch the water, cross only by the stone bridge. The very air of the forest is heavy with illusion, it'll seek to enter your mind and lead you astray."

He continued, more calmly.

"Lead us astray? What does that mean?"

Bilbo asked doubtfully.

"You must stay on the path, do not leave it. If you do, you'll never find it again."

Gandalf concluded and mounted his horse. Feeling the man's legs tightening around his abdomen, the steed immediately moved forward, but before having the time to make the first stride it had to stop in front of the young woman, who was staring at his rider with a straight face while, with her hands crossed on her chest and her feet firmly on the ground, she showed no sign of letting them pass.

"Where are you going Gandalf?"

Arya asked authoritatively.

"I had a vision at the entrance of the forest, I must go to the High Fells of Rhudaur. Something tells me that an old evil is awakening...an old evil, yes. I must go and see."

"If what you're saying is true and the King of Angmar is back for real, then Beorn was right: it is not a Necromancer we are dealing with. You'll need help Gandalf, let me come with you."

"No, you have to stay with the company. They need you, Arya, now more than ever."

The young woman understood that those words didn't allow for a reply, so she cleared the road and watched her friend ride fast towards Rhudaur.

Meanwhile, the dwarves had begun to make their way into the forest. They followed the path, sometimes cutting, others avoiding, the numerous shrubs that blocked their way. It almost seemed as if they wanted to discourage them, as if they wanted to convince them to go back. But certainly fearless and stubborn dwarves like them would not have been daunted by some tiny plant!

After having finished her conversation with the wizard, Arya quickly reached the group and began walking alongside Fili. No words were said between them, the dwarf too focused to remain clear-headed, trying to keep the darkness of the forest out of his mind, the young woman too busy brooding over the words of Gandalf and Beorn. Arya was now sure that the true identity of the Necromancer was that of Sauron and, if the Lord of Mordor had returned, dark and difficult times loomed on Middle Earth. But the question that kept popping up impertinently in her mind was what her role and that of her brother would have been in the war that was to come. Too many times in history the descendants of Isildur, as well as Isildur himself, had led the armies of men against the ones the orcs in battle, losing miserably. Arya feared that history was about to repeat itself once more.

"We found the bridge!"

Kili exclaimed, interrupting the young woman's thoughts. Arya returned focused on the mission and realized they had come to the banks of a river. She shifted her gaze to where once there was probably the bridge that Gandalf had talked about, of which, however, now remained only the extremes.

"We could try and swim it."

Bofur then proposed.

"Didn't you hear what Gandalf said? A dark magic lies upon this forest. The waters of this stream are enchanted."

Thorin scolded him.

"Doesn't look very enchanting to me!"

He replied with composure. Arya smiled at such a childish statement.

"We must find another way across."

The young King continued. The girl noticed a series of branches passing over the water, perhaps strong enough to support even the weight of a dwarf.

"These vines look strong enough, they might be for us."

She then proposed, turning to Thorin.

"Arya's right, these could hold us."

Kili added, after having reached the plants. He had already started climbing when he was called back by his uncle.

"Kili! We send the lightest first."

Thorin said, glancing in the direction of Arya and Bilbo.

"I'll go."

The young woman immediately offered herself, but Fili's arm stretched out in front of her stopped her from continuing.

"No, not a chance."

The dwarf said confidently, despite the look of reproach in Arya's eyes.

"All right, I'll go"

Bilbo resigned himself then, glancing in the direction of the girl and, with a smile, letting her know that he was feeling no resentment towards her. The hobbit began his climb and, not without some difficulties, eventually managed to get to the other side. But something didn't convince him, didn't convince him at all. Immediately after regaining his composure, he turned to his companions to warn them to stay still, but it was too late. The dwarves were already all attached to the branches in the attempt of crossing the river. One after another, more or less, they came to the other side, all except Bombur, who dropped into the water, falling asleep, and then had to be dragged ashore. After crossing the stream, the company resumed their journey through the forest, taking with them a Bombur still in coma. But the darkness increased and staying sane was starting to be more and more difficult. Some dwarves, mostly Bofur, began to suffer from lack of air, or fatigue. The forest seemed to extend with every step they took and, little by little, they were all giving in to madness.

"What is that? Voices! Voices! Can you hear them?"

Bilbo suddenly exclaimed in a daze.

"I hear nothing. No wind. No bird. What hour is it? What hour is it?"

Thorin began to scream.

"I do not know. I do not even know what day it is!"

Dwalin replied, in a miserable state.

"This is taking too long! Too long! Is there no end to this accursed forest?!"

Thorin continued, now delirious.

"None that I can see! Only trees and more trees!"

Gloin complained. Arya kept walking, not knowing how to help. Seeing her companions in that state depressed her terribly, she absolutely had to do something, but what? Her head was starting to get heavy on her shoulders and even staying awake had become difficult, how could she think she was of any help in those conditions? Fili had realized that something was wrong but, even for him, remaining clear-headed in that situation was impossible. He still decided to approach the young woman to support her, but both ended up falling to the ground.

"There! This way!"

Thorin suddenly said, stumbling to somewhere in the forest.

"But Gandalf said that...".

Ori then began, trying to dissuade him not to go, but it was useless: Thorin wouldn't listen to reason.

"Do as I say! Follow me!"

He exclaimed, facing the dwarves who immediately obeyed. Fili rose from the ground and helped Arya do the same.

"Hold on, sooner or later we'll get out of here."

The young prince tried to encourage her. But his tone and expression suggested that those words were addressed more to himself than to the girl.

"I hope..."

Arya replied, looking at him with pity and understanding at the same time. The two youngsters reached the rest of the company without hearing the calls of Bilbo, who was ordering them to stay on the path. Not long after, in fact, all the members of the company realized they had lost their way. That was it. They were definitely lost. They would have never been able to get to the Mountain in time for Durin's Day.

"Look!"

Ori suddenly exclaimed, picking up an object from the ground.

"A tobacco pouch. There's dwarves in these woods."

His brother Dori stated, after having observed it. Then Bofur, curious, took the little bag from Dori's hands to look at it more closely.

"Dwarves from the Blue Mountains, no less! This one's exactly sa same as mine!"

He then remarked in amazement.

"Because it is yours, do you understand? We're going around in circles, we are lost!"

Bilbo declared exasperated.

"We are not lost. We keep heading east."

Thorin replied firmly.

"But which way is the east?"

Gloin then asked, glancing around with a lost look.

"We follow the sun."

Oin explained. It was only then that Bilbo understood.

"The sun! We have to find the sun!"

The hobbit exclaimed, his eyes bright with hope again.

"Up there! We have to reach the...".

He continued, turning to the company, but immediately realized that no one was listening to him. The dwarves were too busy arguing and arguing among themselves to take him into consideration, so he decided to climb a tree to try to understand their position and, consequently, the direction to take. In the meantime, however, the dwarves began to move again, soon followed by the young woman, who had no more strength to think or to argue, so she just passively accepted the decisions of the group. They kept walking until they realized they were being watched. It was a matter of an instant, all the members of the company, aware of the danger, awoke from their state of trance, but it was too late, they were surrounded and outnumbered. Giant and menacing spiders were everywhere around them.

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