The world might indeed be ahead of Anna, but it was concealed quite well behind the dense thicket that was the forest of Mirkwood, which stretched sheer endlessly before her eyes. An impenetrable wall of branches, trunks and roots lay in between her and the Elvenking. But she had set herself to conquer, or at least cross, the forest unharmed and she would not let herself be intimidated by its daunting appearance before having even set a foot in it.
The gates of the palace were shut and sealed for good and she took her first deep breath in the wild. She was on her own now, no one watching her but also no one watching out for her.
She rummaged in her backpack and reached for the boots and gloves as well as the thick woolen tunic, which Brethilwen had packed as a matter of prudence. She pulled the tunic over her head, making sure the sword in its scabbard was securely tied on top of it and easily accessible, changed into the tall leather boots, pulled the heavy cloak around her shoulders and then packed away all the clothes she would not be needing. Finally only the gloves were left and then she shouldered her backpack and was ready to head out on her journey.
Peaceful and serene was Thranduil’s kingdom in its wintry beauty and one could easily forget all the dangers and dark secrets it possibly held in store for the unaware traveller. The sky spanned above her as she headed for the bridge, patches of washed out blue peeking through crisp clouds that moved hastily across the morning sky. She trudged along through the ankle deep snow following the tracks of the visitor until she reached to opposite side of the bridge and the entrance to the forest lay before her like a giant mouth ready to devour anyone that stepped inside without the king’s leave.
She turned around once more, glancing back one last time at the palace across the bridge and a mixture of melancholy and sorrow overcame her. After all she did have some very precious memories of the rare but intimate moments she had shared with Thranduil. Should all this now be something of the past? Or was there still a future for her in the king’s realm, or more importantly, in his heart? Doubts about the rightfulness of her endeavour poked her conscience, but she had already gone too far to turn back again. And in the end her intention was not to run away but to be reunited with Thranduil once more.
“Good bye,” she whispered, adding in a more resolute tone “I will be back. With the king by my side.”
With a deep sigh she turned away from the Elvenking’s halls and made her way into the forest. The dome of thick branches above her quickly hid the sky from her view and somehow it was like being swallowed by a long tunnel, strangely isolated from the rest of the world, the vegetation thickening quickly as she strode on. Soon the snow was reduced to small patches on the ground and some carelessly sprinkled branches until it had nearly receded completely, revealing the forest floor almost as it used to be in autumn, a thick rug of fallen and crumpled leaves, painting the way with a gloomy brown and a sickly green, rustling eerily beneath her feet as she moved on. Ancient oaks with their trunks as mighty as they were gnarled lined her path, the branches of slender beeches and lithe birches webbing themselves together high above her, shutting out whatever little sunshine there might have been in the wintry sky above. Although it was still only in the morning it was already dim like in the late hours of a grey November day.
There was still no need for her to check her map as the first leg of her journey would be leading her through familiar territory. After all she had been out here numerous times with Legolas and Tauriel. Still, everything felt quite different now, not one to talk to, no one to lead the way, but if she held on to the path leading south-east and did not stray from it she was going to be fine. At least that was what she told herself.
At first she was in high spirits as she made good time and was advancing swiftly along the clearly laid out pathway, the reassuring gurgling of the Forest River in her ears. She even hummed the tune that Faeldir and Amardir had written to accompany their poem for her and kicked a twig or two following the rhythm of the song.
As she made her way deeper into the forest the air gradually became unmoving and stuffy, filling her lungs with a shadow of foreboding and drowning out her joyful melody. She trotted along silently as the voices of the forest floated around her in eerie curiosity and the unsettling feeling that she was being watched grew inside her at an alarming rate. She tightened her cloak around her shoulders and pulled her hood up, providing her with a slight sense of more security, although she knew that whoever was watching her would not be fooled by a cloak or a hood. After all, magic could unmask whatever disguise, and she was no elf, but only a human resembling a lost little bird trapped in the cage of a strange forest. And talking about birds, they or rather their absence was another one of those peculiar additions to these woods that contributed to her feeling of unease. Although she knew that she was not heading towards the even more dangerous, spider-infested areas of the forest, which lay north-west of the Elvenking’s palace, she still found only strange creatures along her way, some of them a sickly pale and long gone blind in the darkness, slithering along silently. Black squirrels scuttled along the forest floor, quickly darting from tree to tree, their branches weighed down heavily by an overgrowth of ivy and lichen.
She tried to stay focused on her pathway and marched on, only stopping briefly to take a few bites from her lembas and some refreshing gulps of water. But she had to be wise with her provisions, rationing them carefully, especially the water, the only source of drinkable water being the Forest River. As long as she kept close enough to its riverbed, she should be fine.
The first night came as a shock to her. Whatever she had thought it was going to be, it was nothing like it. The air hummed with the strangest noises, creeping under her skin and if she closed her eyes she could feel the presence of many unseen creatures, invisible to her eyes, her imagination taking over the lead and painting them in the most gruesome and awkward colours. She wished dearly that she had brought more than one blanket to wrap herself so she could pull at least three of them over her head and hide from the floating menace of these haunted woods. She was shivering and not only from the cold, but fear that crept into her heart, she had never felt so alone and at nature’s mercy than that first night in the forest.
Her adventurous spirit was considerably dampened by the harsh reality of freezing temperatures and the fact that it was pitch dark. She could not even see her hand in front of her eyes, let alone her surroundings. Of course she had no source of light and she knew nothing of starting a fire in the wild, so all she could do was wrap herself with the one blanket she had and hope that it would shield her enough from the low temperatures to hopefully wake up next morning alive and not dead.
She did in fact wake up unharmed, but started her second day in a slightly more subdued mood after this sobering experience, which might have been called many things but magical was not one of them. Still, surprisingly her blanket had kept her warm enough, despite the freezing temperatures so maybe the possibility of some protective elven magic should not be ruled out completely. She munched on her frugal breakfast and then quickly packed her things to move ahead. The pathway still lay clearly ahead of her, so she shouldered her backpack and went on. Treading carefully through the thick layers of rotten leaves that were threatening to bury the pathway beneath them she kept her eyes on the ground most of the time, allowing her mind to drift. Thranduil’s face appeared before her inner eye and the way he had looked at her when she had given him her promise. The affection in his eyes still warmed her heart, only to be quickly frozen by the guilt that laid itself like a coat of ice around her heart. Everything that she was doing now was a defiance of his wish wanting her to be safe and wait for his return. But how could she have stayed behind when he was walking into a battle? How could she wait and do nothing, when his life was in danger? If he was killed her only reason to stay in this strange world was gone too. She had mulled this over already a million times in her head, but no matter how she looked at it, her only option was to do what she had set out to do.
The remainder of the second day passed without any other incidents, although she seemed to be rather slowing down than advancing considerably, but she attributed that to her body simply not being used to this type of physical exertion, being on her feet all day, only pausing to eat and drink and move on again.
But she had to admit that the uniformity of her surroundings presented her with a serious problem. Everything started to look the same after a while. As she walked on she could have sworn that she had passed the same spot already several times. Grey were the trunks, the ancient barks watching her with their sad faces, observing her every step, hoping for her to falter and get lost. But she would not give them that satisfaction, she would walk on, stay on the path and find her way through this cursed thicket. Find her way to Thranduil, the king of her heart. She would laugh in their twisted faces and show them that she, a little human, would pass through their intimidating pillars alive.
Rather sooner than later her self-confidence was put to the test as it proved increasingly difficult for her to even tell for sure where the path lay. At times it seemed broken or it lost itself in the dense undergrowth or worse: it seemed to divide itself into several smaller pathways.
And she hit another obstacle that she had not considered before: how would she orient herself in the depths of the forest with no chance of seeing even the smallest bit of sky above her? There was no sun and there were no stars at night that would reveal anything about her position. Not that she was an expert in those things, but with only the map and no other point of reference her endeavour would be turning out quite more complicated than she had foreseen. Even the change from daytime to nighttime was only a shifting from a gloomy dark green to an even darker shade of green until all light was shut out and the pitch black night shrouded everything in depressing darkness. So she spent her second night shielded by the thick undergrowth in between two beeches, which offered her a more or less comfortable shelter. She was exhausted and once she had pulled her blanket over her head to shut out all possible dangers she fell immediately into a deep sleep.
When she opened her eyes the next morning feeling all stiff and uncomfortable she scrambled to her feet after her quick breakfast and took at judgemental look at the forest as it lay in deceptive tranquillity before her, thick, dark and gloomy. She pulled out her map in an automatic motion, only to realise that this would not help her here in this forest, and with a deep sigh she put it away again. This piece of parchment she had hoped to rely on turned out to be quite useless in the face of this strange forest where the pathways seemed to shift at will.
Following her calculations the thickness of the vegetation should have already receded, but quite the opposite was the case. She was now starting the third day of her journey and the woods seemed to grow ever thicker. Frustration knocked at her heart and she was not quite able to hold much against it. It seemed to her that the forest had conspired against her. Was this maybe the king’s way of making sure that she would not leave his kingdom? Forcing her to turn around and walk back to the palace?
Wherever she would turn, it was a dead end, it was as if the forest grew new branches and roots as she was trying to pass them by, forcing her to take another turn, leading her yet into another unwanted direction. It had not actually harmed her and nothing had yet attacked her, but it seemed rather like an overly watchful sentinel, making sure that she would not leave its boundaries. The forest did not exactly behave hostile towards her, but it was also far from being friendly and helpful.
So even if she had succeeded in sneaking out of the palace, she was stuck now. Every move of hers brought upon another countermove, it seemed that the forest was playing chess with her and it was about to checkmate her once and for all.
Still she could hear the rushing of the Forest River not so far away, which meant she was not totally off course. So instead of following the ever changing and not to be trusted pathway she decided to head for the river instead. She anyway needed to replenish her water, so it would be a necessary detour for her to make. The undergrowth though did not let her through willingly and if it weren’t for her thick cloak and her gloves she would have ended up with deep scratches along her arms. Still it was nearly impossible for her to shield her face completely from the hostile thorns and pointy twigs and more than once she flinched at the stinging pain as she struggled to squeeze through the thicket and she felt a piercing sting as another particularly nasty thorn dug into her cheek. A burning sensation bloomed instantly on her face and warm blood trickled down her side and into her mouth. Muttering curses under her breath she went on, slower still and eventually crawling on all fours as the vegetation closed in even more around her.
Under different circumstances she might have just pulled out her sword and cut away the branches in question, but she was quite sure that this was not a wise move. She had learned as much in her outings with Legolas and Tauriel that this forest would most possibly defend itself against any type of attack and she had no particular wish to be crushed to death by upset branches lashing out to her or infuriated roots trying to swallow her alive. The bruises to her face would only be a minor casualty in comparison with all the other attacks she was sure the forest would have in store for her. At least she told herself that if she made it to the river, she would be able to see the sky above her once more and she would be able to wash off the blood that had begun to mix with the dirt from the ground as she made her way crawling like a beast in the woods.
As the rushing of the water drew ever nearer she picked up her pace as much as the vegetation would allow it, roots digging into her knees and her hair tangling with the branches from above.
Finally she saw the glimmer of daylight shining through the web of twigs ahead of her. The river was near! Just a few more metres and she would push through the edge of the thicket and then the steep bank lay before her. She squinted her eyes at the unexpected exposure to the brightness of the snow and the sky, although it was as a matter of fact overcast and a glum grey, but in comparison to the stuffy darkness in the woods it was a revelation, the first breath of fresh air since she had entered the forest a few days ago. She quickly scanned her surroundings and found near her a steep and narrow pathway that lead down to a small bank by the river. It was an ideal spot for her to refresh herself and refill her water supply. Throwing all caution to the wind she climbed down the narrow ledge until she reached the bank that was only a small spot surrounded by overhanging branches, heavily laden with snow. She dropped her backpack carelessly to the ground beside her, pulled off her gloves and kneeled beside the river, dipping her face into the icy floods, the cold current prickling on her skin and washing away the blood and dirt from her face. She scrubbed her face clean and pulled out her waterskins to refill them with fresh water which tasted delicious on her parched throat and filled her body with renewed energy.
Taking another bite from her store of lembas she decided to stay for a while, enjoying the crisp air and organise her belongings that had gotten all shaken up during her journey. She also untied her scabbard and put her sword carefully beside it. Although she had not yet needed it she was still grateful for this more than generous gift, and she could not help but wonder who had been the original owner of this kingly weapon. She cleaned the blade diligently from the residues of earth until the curved metal gleamed again in its silvery perfection. Looking at its elegant shape she was once more reminded of the twin swords Thranduil carried with him, deadly weapons in the hands of a skilled warrior like him. She could only hope that it would not get to the point where she indeed would have to defend herself with her sword, considering that her knowledge of sword fighting only went as far as holding it and swinging it around in a more or less aimless way. The chances of harming herself in a fight were considerably higher than inflicting an injury on her opponent. She grinned wryly at her own sarcasm, but decided to put that unnerving thought aside for now and allow her eyes to wander across the incessantly murmuring water in front of her. The strong current prevented the river from freezing over despite the cold temperatures and for a moment her gaze was lost in the rippling waves that danced beneath the dull wintry sky with speckles of silver and crystal blue.
With her eyes fixed on the surface of the water in front of her, she had not noticed that there was an added sound to the rushing of the river, a rhythmical paddling cutting through the steady purling of the stream and drawing nearer to where she was sitting. Her eyes darted downstream as she was suddenly aware of the increasing noise approaching her. Not far off in the distance she could make out the silhouette of a raft with at least two people on it stirring it upstream. If she lingered much longer, they would surely see her and she did not want to risk being discovered. Most likely those were Raft-elves returning from Lake Esgaroth to the palace. Despite them having to work against the current they were moving at an alarmingly fast rate, so she quickly stuffed her belongings back into her backpack and scrambled to her feet while she worked to readjust her cloak. She could see them already clearly as they drew ever closer to her spot that would not be secret any more quite soon. Why on earth had she decided to take off her scabbard and her sword? Now she had to fumble hard to put both back in place and while she struggled to pull her gloves over her clammy and humid hands the raft swiftly floated upstream. Quickly now, she grabbed her backpack and headed for the pathway that luckily lay half covered beneath some overhanging branches. Still, she had to move quickly out of sight, as elves had a keen eyesight and still might be able to spot her, especially since the dark green of her cloak stood out clearly against the white of the snow. She could not risk them discovering her and taking her back to the palace. She scrambled upwards on all fours, earth, snow and crumpled leaves sticking to her gloves and knees, not looking back, moving forward as fast as she could, back into the cover of the forest. Faster, she had to move faster. She dragged along her backpack on the ground with one hand as there had not been any time for her to put in on her back. The branches and twigs seemed more hostile than ever, stubbornly standing in her way, refusing to bend, poking their pointy ends at her and resulting in more nasty scratches on her face, but she did not heed the pain as she had only one thought on her mind: hide and hide fast!
Only when she was sure that she was far enough away from the river and safely out of sight beneath the dense vegetation of the forest, she finally stopped, dropping her backpack to the ground beside her. She gasped for air, bending forward, her arms clutched around her waist to relieve the painful stitches in her sides. Her heartbeat was racing like a thunderstorm, adrenalin rushing through her veins, cold sweat on her face as she dropped to her knees, trembling with exhaustion.
The fact that she had to flee in a rush had left her totally disoriented. She inhaled deeply, blood pulsating through her head in a wild rhythm, trying hard to keep her calm and not let despair take her. All her efforts of staying on course had been shattered to pieces. Yes, she had gotten fresh water, but at what cost! She had no idea where she was. There was no pathway in sight and she seemed to have taken a different turn when she scrambled back from the river. For all she knew this could be the end of her. No one would ever find her and she would never find her way out of this cursed forest.
And there it was, despair didn’t even bother knocking but simply flooded her heart and the dam of her already crumbling confidence was washed away by the torrents of misery. She sat under the gloomy dome of Mirkwood and tears were streaming down her face, her heart floating ever closer to the abyss of despair. All she could think of was Thranduil’s face and his eyes of crystal blue and the warmth of his slender hands as they closed around hers. Never would this blissful feeling be hers again.
And then the agony of having lost what she loved most overcame her and she slumped to the ground and allowed her tears to flow freely. Her hands dug into the dirt beneath them, squishing the damp and cold mixture of earth and leaves in between her fingers as frustrated rage burned in her heart and bitter disappointment stormed through her veins. The saltiness of her tears mixed with the warmth of the blood that trickled from her scratches, watering the ground beneath her with what spilled from the wounds of her body and soul. She cried out her despair into the depths of the woods, cursing the fate that had thrown her into this pit of desolation only to leave her to bleed out her human life in the fangs of this unforgiving forest.
When all her tears were finally spent and had receded into muffled sobs she lay on the ground for a long while, her breathing slowing down to a normal pace and she looked up into the tangled net of branches and twigs, her hand sliding into her pocket and closing around the rather tatty remains of Thranduil’s cloth, feeling the silkiness beneath her fingers and a small spark of hope rekindled in her heart. Somewhere in this strange world his heart was still beating, she was suddenly sure of it and if she only tried hard enough then she would see him again. She brought the fabric to her face drenching it with the remnants of blood and tears, darks spots blooming on the silvery grey where the blood had soaked it. She closed her fist around it and whispered to herself: “I will not give up. Not in the face of death and defeat. I will not be intimidated. I will stand by my word.” She scrambled to her feet and brushed off the wet earth and leaves that clung to her tunic and cloak. “I will find the king and I will not rest until I have found him!” she shouted into the forest, the trees bearing witness to her renewed oath.
She took a deep breath and slid the fabric back into the pocket beside the poem and the crumpled map, shouldered her backpack and was ready to set out once again. Scratched and bruised, but not defeated she glanced into the gloomy depths ahead of her, a fierce glow in her eyes and renewed determination in her heart.
Carefully she made her way across the gnarled roots and through the dense thickets, making sure that this time she would be more cautious with the menacing thorns and twigs and marched on wherever her feet would take her, simply following the compass of her heart. The map had been a failure, so she might as well try something different and simply drift along. She took in even more details along the way, many trees hunched and huddled together as if they themselves were afraid of something, saddened by the loss of the life they once had.
As she opened her heart to her surroundings, her fear and anger gradually turned to curiosity and something like empathy began to grow inside her.
And slowly she began to understand the magic that had been woven into these woods in ages long forgotten, when the world was young and this forest was green, sunlit and beautiful, full of life. The elves had filled it with their souls and their spirit floated through it in endless melodies. The rustling of the leaves, the chirping of the birds, the gurgling of the waters, all those voices were part of a bigger orchestra, weaving together a symphony that sung of the bond in between the Wood-elves and their forest that was as deep as it was everlasting. Forever intertwined one suffered when the other one was hurt and thrived as the other one blossomed. And when the darkness came, growth turned to decay and light turned to shadow. The darkness that lay on the forest was none other than the one that also lay on Thranduil’s heart and only if it was defeated both would be free again.
She could only imagine the beauty that once must have resided within Greenwood the Great, for beneath all the crooked gloominess and the endless layers of ivy and lichen one could still perceive the faded grace of an ancient primeval forest that had stood proud and tall in the days of old.
She had walked for hours on end, barely allowing herself any rest, crossing a part of the woods that looked just as dark, dense and gloomy as all the others she had passed. Before she would collapse somewhere on the way she decided to rest for the night as she noticed that the light was starting to dim already.
She dumped her backpack on the ground with a muffled thud and leaned against the gnarled bark of an especially withered oak, slowly slumping down towards the moss covered roots.
If she was indeed lost and had no idea where she was heading to, she might as well camp here for the night and try her luck again in the morning. This place was a good as any, the fanned out roots and some low lying branches offering at least some kind of meagre shelter from the elements. And she had learned to prepare herself before darkness caught up with her like it did on the first night, drowning her in its unexpected absoluteness.
It was far from comfortable, the roots poking in her back and her lumpy backpack resembling a very far off imitation of a pillow. But she had to make do with what was available and at least under this wide oak the moss had grown thick enough to provide her with some sort of cushioning. At last she dozed off into a deep slumber.
And then the tree sang to her in a tune both familiar and strange. A song of places she had been and people she had known. It filled her heart with voices long forgotten and glances lost in time. Eyes searching but never finding.
When is she coming back? Where is she? Why has she left us? It sounded from the depths of the darkness.
Hopefully soon. I don’t know. She will be back, came the answers, although still calming, disbelief rang through them.
The voices rose to a choir, ever louder and more dissonant, one voice trying to drown out the others until all were dancing in her head, filling her every thought with their accusatory rhythm, questions and answers fencing with each other until everything melted into an indistinguishable concoction of sounds, painting a colourful tapestry of vivid images from a life that was once hers. Her mind dived in, gratefully absorbing every little detail, flashes of bright colours, rays of sunlight and dances in the rain, eyes of emerald blinking at her, a high clear laugh ringing through and a sweet embrace filling her heart with joy.
The next morning she woke up with a smile on her face and an inexplicable fuzzy and warm feeling in her chest. She wanted to immerse herself again in those images, hold on to the feeling of belonging somewhere in the midst of nowhere. But she could not go back there, she had already emerged too far from her dream and the ocean of memories was receding rapidly as she opened her eyes and looked around, realising that she was still trapped in this forest.
She knew in her heart that there was something valuable that she had lost and that she needed to recover, just like Thranduil had his memento to reclaim. But what exactly that was she could not tell anymore as the pieces of her dream fell apart like a mosaic, leaving her heart both empty and full.
For the first time in months she had been allowed a glimpse into her past and for the first time she knew that indeed there was someone that had meant something to her and to whom she must have meant something too.
Someone who was waiting for her to return.