The March of Time

22: The Path Through Mirkwood

Hey guys! Here is Chapter 22. Hope y'all like!

Chapter Twenty-Two: The Path Through Mirkwood

"Set the ponies loose," Gandalf instructed, as he swung off his own horse. "Let them return to their master." Bilbo followed suit, disembarking from his own saddle quite clumsily; the thick, perfumed air emanating from the forest was making him quite dizzy, and he shook his head fiercely to shrug off the curling fingers seeking to enter his brain.

Around him, the rest of the Company dismounted from their ponies, as well, complaining about sore backsides and stiff muscles, but Bilbo knew that they were sad to see the ponies go all the same. Mirkwood was not a welcome place for the creatures, but still, their presence would have been comforting.

"No sign of any Orcs," Dwalin observed, his eyes raking the landscape as he undid his supply bags from his pony's back. "It seems we have luck on our side." The rest of the Company remained silent, as if they too could hear the unspoken words: for now.

Bilbo began fumbling with the straps of his own pack, trying to avoid his pony's hooves from stepping on him as it pawed the ground nervously. He stroked the pony's neck, attempting to calm it, as he looked back worriedly to the dankness of the trees.

"This forest feels…sick, as if a disease lies upon it," he said aloud, voicing everyone's thoughts as he swung his pack over his shoulders. He turned to face Gandalf beside him, who was gazing into the forest intently with narrowed eyes. "Is there no way around?"

"Not unless we go two hundred miles north, or twice that distance…south." The Wizard had swept off towards the Elven Gate at this last word, walking quickly onto the path with long strides before promptly disappearing behind the Gate. After a slight hesitation, Alison followed the Wizard, being swallowed by the shadows as well as she walked further into the trees.

Bilbo stared after the two, wondering why they had departed so abruptly, and hoping they would be back soon, for he was growing increasingly unnerved from the still and silent wood looming before them.

"Come on, let's send the ponies back," Thorin said from somewhere on Bilbo's left, and the Hobbit looked to see the Dwarf king patting his horse on the nose before setting it free. "Beorn will be expecting their return."

Those who had already unpacked their ponies did as he said, and they watched them go with frowns and furrowed brows as the horses cantered away from the forest, obviously not having any qualms about leaving their riders behind. Bilbo let his own pony go, staring after it with an uneasy feeling in his stomach before turning back to the others.

"Here, Bilbo, come help me with Gandalf's horse," Nori said, walking by the Hobbit and clapping him on the shoulder. Bilbo nodded, and he went with Nori to start unpacking Gandalf's horse as the Company congregated around them, muttering in low tones and shifting their wary glances from the tree-line and back, hefting their packs higher upon their shoulders.

Bilbo and Nori began un-strapping Gandalf's supply bags, but immediately froze as the Wizard's voice said from behind them, "Not my horse, I need it!"

The Company turned to see the Wizard striding towards them, looking quite grave, and Bilbo saw Alison trailing behind him, her face pale as they emerged from the path and came before the Company.

Bilbo could only stare at Gandalf, feeling his heart drop like a stone as he realized what the Wizard was saying. "You're not leaving us?" he said, trying to keep the desperation from his voice, and he was quite surprised to hear that it came out somewhat steadily instead of breathy with fear.

"I would not do this unless I had to," Gandalf replied as the Company looked on with confusion and some anxiety, though they stayed silent, as if not knowing what to say to the news that their guide was leaving them.

Gandalf made to move past Bilbo, but then stopped, looking down at the Hobbit seriously and lowering his voice so only they two could hear. "You've changed, Bilbo Baggins. You are not the same Hobbit as the one who left the Shire all those months ago."

Bilbo gulped, his hand moving instinctively to the pocket where he kept the ring. He knew that Gandalf had suspected something ever since Goblin Town, when he had rejoined the Company after their escape and replaced the ring into his pocket; he had seen the Wizard's eyes linger upon it, had seen the suspicious look flash in his bright blue eyes before changing the subject for the Hobbit's sake. He had been wondering when Gandalf would voice his suspicions out loud and demand to see the ring, and he suddenly found himself almost…reluctant to show the Wizard, though he knew that it was actually quite sensible. Maybe the Wizard would know of its power, maybe he could explain to Bilbo why it was the way it was…he could help him.

"I—I found something in the goblin-tunnels," he stammered, suddenly finding it hard to speak as Gandalf's piercing eyes bored into him. "I was going to tell you, but…"

"What is it?" Gandalf asked, his expression solemn and wary. "What did you find?"

Bilbo opened his mouth, suddenly choked. What was he waiting for? Gandalf could help him, he could explain the mystery of the ring…but Bilbo found himself not wanting to divulge his secret. Gandalf could take the ring away with him, to study it or anything of the sort, and Bilbo would be left with nothing but his sword. He knew that he had become a lot braver since the start of their journey, but the ring…the ring was due in part to that. And he didn't want to lose that courage, not if he was just beginning to feel like he was actually a part of this quest, as if the Company actually needed him.

And that was what he told Gandalf.

"My courage," he said finally, slipping his hand out of his pocket. "I found my courage, Gandalf."

The Wizard looked startled for a moment at his proclamation, and Bilbo held his breath as he saw the doubt flash in Gandalf's eyes, before it quickly slid away and the Wizard straightened, instead looking at him shrewdly before saying, "Good. Well, that's good. You'll need it."

And after one more intense look at the Hobbit, Gandalf swung himself onto his horse, and Bilbo backed away, feeling a flicker of guilt at having not told the Wizard; what if he never saw him again?

"I'll be waiting for you at the overlook, before the slopes of Erebor," Gandalf said as he adjusted himself in his saddle, and the Company looked on with incredulous expressions, as if they couldn't believe the Wizard was leaving them at such a crucial point in their quest. He looked to Thorin, whose expression was as stony as ever.

"Keep the map and key safe. Do not enter that mountain without me." He said seriously, and Thorin gave a curt nod before the Wizard continued. "This is not the Greenwood of Old. The very air of this forest is heavy with illusion that will seek to enter your mind and lead you astray; you must take great caution."

"'Lead us astray?'" Bilbo repeated. "What does that mean?"

But he was largely ignored by the rest of the Company as Gandalf turned his horse away from the forest before them, now facing a southerly direction. "You must stay on the path. Do not leave it," he warned. "If you do, you will never find it again."

Well, that's comforting. Bilbo thought as Gandalf spurred his horse forward and began to ride away. "No matter what may come, stay on the path!" the Wizard called as he galloped away, and the Company watched their guide disappear back into the Wilderland in a billow of grey robes until he was gone entirely.

Bilbo stood, staring blankly at the spot where Gandalf had just vanished as if expecting the Wizard to pop his head back up and say, I was only joking, you fools! Of course I am coming with you!

But no such thing happened, and Bilbo swallowed nervously as he turned to face the rest of the Company, who were apparently thinking the same thing he was as they stared in bewilderment and confusion at each other.

Finally, Thorin stepped forward, his face cloudy and his eyes hard as he took in the ominous forest before them. "Come on, we must reach the Mountain before the sun sets on Durin's Day," he said, striding towards the twisted trees.

After a small hesitation, Dwalin followed him, and then Fili, Kili, and Balin, but the rest still stood around uncertainly. Thorin turned at the entrance to the Elven Path, sweeping his gaze over them all as he ordered, "Let's go! We have one chance to find the hidden door, and we can't waste any more time. Come on, lads."

Alison walked forward to join him at the gate, and soon after, everyone else in the Company followed her. As if on their own accord, Bilbo's feet began to move, and he shuffled after everyone else until they all congregated around the gate, the antler-like spires on their sides looming up into the air and forming an almost rib cage-like structure above them.

"Come on," Thorin said gruffly, and he plunged into the tree-line without even a pause. The rest of the Company started into the trees as well, and Bilbo fell into step between Bofur and Bifur.

As they passed through the gate, Bilbo paused and looked briefly up to the last stretch of sky he could see before the oppressing foliage twisted above him and blocked out all light and vision of openness. A sudden rustle caught his attention, and he brought his gaze back down, seeing Alison standing on the pathway behind him, adjusting a covering of vines that seemed to be choking a statue of an Elf-maiden until the vines covered the statue's chest.

Seeing Bilbo staring at her, Alison quickly dropped her hands and started forward, cutting off Bilbo's question of what she had been doing with a brisk, "C'mon, we need to catch up with the others."

She grabbed his elbow and practically dragged him back down the pathway after the Dwarves, and it was all Bilbo could do to keep himself from tripping over his large feet as she led him on with a surprising forcefulness, as if she were eager to get away from the gate—which Bilbo couldn't understand, for certainly the gate was a lot better compared to Mirkwood stretching out before them, but he trailed along after her nonetheless.

Bilbo looked back up to the sky once more, wondering if he would ever see it again, before him and Alison plunged into the dark trees, and the sky was swallowed completely.

They had entered Mirkwood.

"Well, this is fan-freaking-tastic," Alison muttered, as she avoided another dark, gnarled tree root threatening to trip her as it leeched itself across the cracked, dirty pathway. "I mean, I know Mirkwood wasn't really something from a postcard, but does it really have to be this dark and depressing—"

"Alison," Kili all but groaned from his place behind her. "We know. We've heard you the first forty times you've said it."

"I know, I know," she said. "Just trying to relieve the tension."

But 'tension' wasn't exactly the best word; it seemed like an understatement for the twisted, dank forest of Mirkwood. The air was stuffy and humid and suffocating, like a hot, thick blanket pressed over their faces, and there was no light whatsoever, just a dim, faint glow that neither brightened nor darkened as the day wore on. Though they were religiously following the pathway, the sense of danger lurked just to their sides in the form of close-encroaching, sickly-looking trees and undergrowth, and Alison felt the penetrating stares of many unwanted eyes on her, but whenever she looked, eyes raking the trees, she saw nothing there, which just heightened her anxiety even more.

In all honesty, her anxiety had started long before they had truly stepped onto the Elven Path, and talking and making jokes about their predicament was one of the only ways she could think of that could take her mind off of the foreboding feeling in her chest. But it seemed the Company wanted to remain in silence, and Alison respected their wish, following after Thorin with her head swiveling in every which direction, taking in as much of her surroundings as she could and trying not to let her thoughts get to her. But when have distractions ever worked? After only a few minutes, Alison's thoughts traveled back to a couple hours before they had started on the path, when she had followed Gandalf through the Forest Gate, and she suppressed a shiver of fear as their conversation came back to her in awful clarity.

Seeing Gandalf heading into the trees, she had followed him, walking underneath the antler-like spires that glowed like bleached bones in the eerie light and finding him a few meters into the tree-line, stopped before a statue of an Elf-maiden who seemed to be choking under a thick layer of dark vines.

The Wizard had seemed lost deep in thought when she had approached, staring at the statue intently as his lips formed silent words.

"A Wood Elf?" she guessed, and Gandalf started, turning around to face her.

"Ah, Alison," he said. He looked at the statue over his shoulder, nodding. "Indeed; an uncanny likeness to that of the Wood-Elves, yet Beorn was right. Though as beautiful in looks and stature much as their kin in Rivendell, Wood-Elves are lethal and quick to raise their ire; they are very much different from Lord Elrond and his Elves in that respect."

Alison nodded, feeling a flicker of worry. "I remember this part in the story," she said. "It's fuzzy, but I remember the main point." At Gandalf's slight eyebrow raise, she went on. "We're going to be captured by the Wood-Elves, and then we'll be taken to their kingdom and brought before…King Thrandy or whatever his name is."

Gandalf smiled, though his eyes were still hard and wary as he looked at her. "King Thranduil," he corrected her. "But yes, you will undoubtedly meet the Wood-Elves of Mirkwood before you are out of here."

"Is there any way we can avoid them?" she asked half-heartedly, already fearing the answer, and Gandalf shook his head resignedly.

"It seems the story is reasserting itself very forcefully along the original path," he said heavily, and Alison's heart sank. "Though there have been slight deviances, I'm afraid this path is staying very much the same."

"Does that mean—" she swallowed, her voice turning hoarse for a second. "Does that mean the ending will be the same, too?" she whispered, her throat feeling tight.

Gandalf shook his head once again. "I do not know," he said honestly. "As I said at the beginning of your journey, there are a thousand possibilities for the outcome, and you are meant to find one of them, whatever that end may be yet. But do remember you have a hand to play in changing fate, Alison. It was what you were brought here for."

"Are you sure about that still?" she said, somewhat bitterly, and the Wizard looked to her in surprise. "Lady Galadriel hinted there was something else," she continued. "When she spoke to me in Rivendell, it sounded like saving the Line of Durin wasn't the only thing I was brought here to do. She said…" she hesitated about her next words, but under the scrutiny of Gandalf's gaze, she felt compelled to tell the truth. "She said that a Shadow watches me, Gandalf. A Shadow, and that it corrupted the Heroes before me or something, and that it will try to consume me, too, but I don't know what she meant. What Shadow? What happened to the other Heroes? Please, Gandalf, if there's anything you know about this, please tell me. I don't want to be alone on this, I don't—" She had to pause for a moment, horrified that her throat was beginning to close up with suppressed emotion.

"You are not alone, Alison," Gandalf said, his voice surprisingly soft and gentle as he rested a hand on her shoulder. "No one is ever truly, utterly alone, at least not in the figurative sense of the word, and you will never be on your own in this. I do not know about this Shadow Lady Galadriel has mentioned, or whether your destiny lies beyond something greater than just saving the line of Durin, but I do know that you will have a hand to play in it, and that you can succeed—"

The Wizard cut off abruptly, quickly straightening and turning away from Alison, facing something behind him. Alison stared at the Wizard, her fears momentarily forgotten at his sudden change in mood and stance.

"Um, Gandalf?" she said, but the Wizard ignored her, making his way over to the statue of the Elf-maiden slowly, cautiously, as if he expected it to come to life and whack him with a stone hand.

"A Shadow," he muttered, as Alison followed him, and she looked to him sharply, feeling her stomach drop down to her toes.

"What did you say?" she asked, but Gandalf wasn't listening, instead reaching out a hand to the statue and grabbing a handful of the vines carefully.

Alison watched with a feeling of dread building within her, and she wanted to yell at Gandalf to stop whatever he was doing, but it was too late; the Wizard yanked the vines away from the Elf-maiden's chest, and Alison started as she saw something painted on the stone statue, something that looked suspiciously like a red eye, though she couldn't be sure.

Gandalf staggered away from the statue, his blue eyes wide, and Alison looked back and forth between him and the red paint in confusion. "Gandalf? What is it?"

The Wizard stared at the eye for a moment more, finally exhaling heavily and saying to himself, "The High Fells. So be it."

Alison just stared blankly at the Wizard until he seemed to remember that she was there and turned to her urgently. "I must leave," he said, and Alison's eyebrows shot up in disbelief. "Alison, do I have your word that you will stay with the Company, and help them, no matter what comes on your journey?"

"Gandalf, what, I—" she spluttered. "Where are you going? What's going on?"

"Alison," the Wizard said very seriously. "Do you know what this is?" He pointed to the red eye, and Alison shrugged, knowing that she should probably be familiar with it, but she was drawing a blank.

"Um, a really crappy piece of graffiti?" she guessed, wondering why the Wizard was so spooked by this, and Gandalf shook his head quickly. "I don't know, what is it?"

"That is no graffiti," he said. "It is a symbol—a declaration."

"A declaration of what?" Alison said slowly, feeling her fingertips beginning to numb with foreboding.

"That our Enemy has returned," he answered gravely, and Alison's eyes widened.

"You mean the Necromancer?" she asked. "Wait—I thought we knew he was back; you and Beorn told us. Why is this eye thing such a big deal?"

"Do you remember what Johnathan was summoned here for?" he said, and Alison blinked at the sudden mention of the other Hero, nodding all the same.

"The War of the Last Alliance," she said. "Where he fought with the Elves and Men in Mordor against…" A sudden blow connected with Alison's gut, and she struggled to breathe as it hit her what Gandalf was trying to say. "Sauron," she whispered. "You're saying he's back? He's alive?"

Gandalf shook his head. "It is unknown whether that is true," he said. "But there are many signs, signs that I have been too blind to read before, and I must know if what they point to is true. That is why I must leave; I need to find out whether this malice is indeed what I now believe it to be." He shook his head again, muttering to himself, "I've been a fool. I should've journeyed to the tombs in the mountains months ago…"

Alison swallowed nervously, confusion and worry swirling within her, but she understood Gandalf's urgency. "Then you need to go," she said. "You must find out what's going on, Gandalf, because I…" she took a deep breath, trying to shake off the panic. "I need to know what I'm up against, what we're up against." She gestured with her hand towards the direction the Company was in, and Gandalf nodded, his eyes flicking uneasily back to the painted red eye.

"Agreed," he said, and his eyes settled back on her with a sort of pride in them. "You have done a courageous job on the quest so far, Alison," he said, smiling slightly. "You are proving to be a greater Hero than I ever expected, and that gives me great hope. Lead them well in my stead, and continue to be brave, my dear girl."

"I will try," she said softly, smiling back at the Wizard, though her insides still felt cold at the newfound realization that there were even more sinister forces than she thought at work here.

"Then now I must leave you," he said, striding out of the trees, and Alison followed behind, glancing back at the red eye over her shoulder once more before they exited the gate again. "I will journey with great haste, and hopefully I can make it back to you all before you enter the Mountain."

And Alison had watched as Gandalf rode away, back the way they had come, and then they had entered Mirkwood, where she was trying not to let her fear take over her once again. She would not have a repeat of the goblin-tunnels; she was stronger than that now, and Gandalf was trusting in her to be brave. So she would be.

They traveled along the path for what seemed like hours; there was no beginning or end to the dim, gloomy light enveloping the forest, so it was impossible to tell what time of day it was as they went on. They would occasionally pause, sipping out of their water-skins as Thorin and whoever else was in front dug up the path from underneath years of misuse and dark growing things before they could continue on, making sure they stayed on the path.

By the time Thorin ordered them to stop for the "night", Alison was feeling suffocated and claustrophobic from the eerie forest; she was practically baking in her jacket and boots, the wispy hairs that were escaping out of her ponytail sticking to her sweaty neck and forehead, and there was still no sound except for the noises the Company made themselves, just adding to her growing sense of discomfort.

"We'll stop here," Thorin said, gesturing to an area to the left of the path. It wasn't far away at all, only a stone's throw of a distance, but the Company still felt anxious as their feet left the path and walked over to the spot Thorin had pointed out. It was a small, raised sort of ledge of interlocking tree roots, with spaces wide enough between the roots for a fully-grown Dwarf, or a teenage girl or a Hobbit, to sleep somewhat comfortably, so long as they didn't move around so much.

The Company began to set up camp, laying out bedrolls and blankets Beorn had provided them with while Bombur began to unpack some food items to make for that night's dinner. Thorin shook his head as Glóin began to gather some sticks, and the fiery-haired Dwarf dropped them disappointedly as Thorin said, "Not in this place. Fires will undoubtedly attract a great many things in this wood, and I don't want to risk it."

"Or it could keep them away," Alison pointed out. "Creatures here are probably used to the dark, so light could possibly scare them off. And not to mention that I just really want a fire for comfort," she added, as the Company stared at her in surprise, looking mildly impressed.

"Good point right there, lass," Glóin said, continuing on with gathering twigs as Thorin nodded, and Alison grinned modestly, hoping they never found out she had stolen that piece of advice from a documentary she had watched on the Discovery Channel.

Soon they had a blazing fire going, with extra logs and sticks on standby to keep it burning through the night, and Bombur began to prepare a stew with the limited ingredients he had gotten out of his pack; they didn't know how long they would be traveling through Mirkwood, so they were already starting to ration their food and water carefully so they wouldn't be stuck in the same position they had been in on their journey from the Carrock to Beorn's house, which Alison's stomach didn't like, though she knew it was for the best.

It had been abnormally quiet as the stew had been cooking, but when it was ready and everyone had seated themselves around the fire to eat, Thorin broke the silence. "Alison, Fili, and Kili, you three will be on first watch tonight," he said. "There will be three guards from now on while we are in the forest; I don't want to be caught unawares in the middle of the night here." They all nodded, as he proceeded to give second watch to Bilbo, Bofur, and Ori.

Bilbo perked up at the mention of his name, looking slightly pleased, and Alison remembered that the Hobbit usually didn't watch despite his keen eyes and ears, and she smiled slightly to herself as she realized he truly was becoming a trusted member of the Company now.

They all finished eating in limited quiet, punctuated only by a few words of conversation here and there, but otherwise it remained silent most of the time. It was only after they had cleaned their bowls and reseated themselves around the fire that they began to speak in earnest again.

Alison looked to her right, distracted by a sudden movement, and her eyes landed upon Bifur, who appeared to be holding something in one of his hands as his other was turning a small crank of some sort.

"Bifur," she said, and the wild-looking Dwarf glanced up to her at her questioning tone. "What is that?"

The Dwarf held it out to her, and Alison took it gently, surprised to see that it was something like a toy; a golden eagle, exquisitely crafted, and supported by fine golden strings that, when she turned the lever, moved the eagle's wings in a motion reminiscent to the birds' flight above the Misty Mountains all those weeks ago. Some parts of it were still just plain metal, as if he hadn't had time to finish painting it, but it was still one of the most beautiful things she had ever seen.

"Balakhuruzndash," the Dwarf said, and Alison looked up to him, still turning the eagle's lever to make it fly, and from across the fire Bofur said, "It means 'eagle.'"

Alison handed the eagle back to Bifur, smiling as she said, "It's beautiful, Bifur. Your craftsmanship is truly impressive." Bifur smiled wide under his tangled beard, his black eyes crinkling in the corners as he took the toy back and quickly signed something to her enthusiastically.

"He's saying thank you," Bofur said before she could ask. "It is always a very high compliment among Dwarves when it's noted their crafts are appreciated."

"It's a well-deserved compliment," Alison replied, and then she looked to Bofur. "Is that what you were before coming on this quest? Toymakers?"

Bofur nodded. "Aye," he said, with a nostalgic smile. "We owned a tiny stall on the outskirts of the Blue Mountains, and in the summers we would take our things and travel around the lands surrounding the city, selling our fare and trading for other goods. It wasn't about the money to us, though. Just seeing the way the eyes of the khuzdîth would light up when they saw the toys…there is nothing I miss more about Ered Luin."

"It sounds incredible," she said honestly, and suddenly Glóin spoke up from beside Bofur, his dark eyes watching the flames wistfully.

"I would be home from a hard day in the forges at this time back home," he said. "I would walk in to find me wife kneading dough in the kitchen to accompany that night's dinner, the flour on her hands and apron, and always there would be a little caught in her beard." He chuckled at this before continuing, the rest of the Company listening attentively to his memories. "And then I'd walk into the sitting room and find me lad, Gimli, pretending he was a warrior of sorts, swinging around a small, dull axe and thinking he was in one of the great tales of old. Of course, this was when he was younger; he'd deny such a thing if you brought it up to him now." He laughed heartily at this, and the rest of the Company joined in.

They continued on with stories from their homes after this, and Alison could imagine the encroaching darkness receding just a little bit as their spirits picked up considerably upon their entry to the forest, and she listened in awe and fascination at the Dwarves' stories, finding it interesting to learn so much more about their lives and cultures back in their homes. It was a long time before the stories eventually wound down, the Company finding solace in their story-telling, but eventually Thorin ordered them all to bed, stating they had a long day ahead of them tomorrow and they needed to be well-rested.

Alison took up her place with Fili and Kili as they drew their weapons into their laps and huddled around the fire, their eyes searching the shadows as the rest of the Company curled up on their bedrolls and went to sleep. The trio at the fire sat in silence for the first half of their watch, listening as the Dwarves and Bilbo took a longer time than usual to fall asleep due to the dark and menacing forest around them.

Now that the forest was deathly still and silent once more, Alison's fears began to creep back into her mind, and every time she blinked, she could see the red eye painted behind her eyelids, as if taunting her about what was coming ahead. The warning feeling had settled back into her gut, as well, making her more jumpy than usual, and she scanned the forest constantly, her fingers clenching and unclenching on her sword hilts almost subconsciously as she picked out the glints of eyes watching them, immediately slinking back into the shadows before reappearing somewhere else whenever she spotted them.

After a couple hours of this, Alison heard a soft groan from Kili across the fire, and she met his eyes over the flames as the Dwarf mimed pulling his hair out. "You are driving me insane," the Dwarf said. "Just watching you is making me feel even more nervous than I already am."

"So don't watch me," she suggested lightly, attempting a grin as he shot her a look, though it came out quite forced.

"Don't start, please," Fili said from his place on the ground, kind of like the point of their triangle, as Kili opened his mouth to retort to Alison. "I was enjoying the silence."

He was holding the dagger he had been playing with in his hand, yet despite his words Alison could see his mouth quirked in a half-grin.

"You know, I could always just go to sleep," Kili said mischievously out of nowhere, and Alison and Fili stared at him as he grinned and went on. "Yeah, I could just curl up right here, and leave the two courting lovebirds by themselves for a few hours—"

"Kili!" Alison nearly yelped, her face flushing as Fili's grin vanished to be replaced by a scowl worthy of Thorin. The dark-haired Dwarf laughed at their expressions as Alison swallowed, not knowing what to say as her cheeks blazed. Fortunately, it was Fili who spoke up for both of them.

"Kili, we're not courting," the older Dwarf prince said resignedly. "And we aren't 'lovebirds.' Nothing is going on between us, not anymore."

"Right," Kili replied cheekily. "And I'm supposed to just believe that after you two—" But he stopped short as he caught sight of Alison's gaze, and it must've been serious, for his grin faded a little to be replaced by a puzzled expression as he looked back and forth between the two. "Wait. You're being serious?"

"We are," Fili said, as Alison nodded, feeling distinctly awkward and uncomfortable under the scrutiny of Kili's gaze.

"Oh," the dark-haired Dwarf said in surprise. "Um…well then. You can forget everything I just said. Sorry."

And they fell back into a slightly more awkward silence, listening to the breathing of the Company and the ghost-like sounds of the creatures in the trees, though luckily nothing attempted to attack them, which Alison took as a good sign. She chanced a glance at Fili, and either the Dwarf was intentionally avoiding her gaze or just didn't notice her look, for he continued to play with the dagger in his hand, flipping it and catching it so the blade caught the light from the fire.

Alison looked away from the blonde Dwarf prince, praying that the end of their watch would come faster so she could escape this awkwardness. She was kind of miffed Fili had blown off Kili's statement so blatantly, as if they had no interest in each other at all, and though Alison knew nothing could ever come out of it, that forming attachments was a bad idea, that didn't necessarily mean she liked the whole distancing thing.

A few brooding hours later, Bilbo, Bofur, and Ori came to replace them on watch, and Alison went over to her bedroll, sinking onto it but leaving the blanket off, still too hot to even consider covering herself with it.

She lay on her side for what seemed like an eternity, waiting for sleep to overtake her, but it was impossible to come by as the forest seemed to press closer, breathing rancid breath on the back of her neck as the silence smothered her like a pillow.

The incessant darkness never let up, and Alison's anxiety gnawed at her no matter how hard she tried to suppress it and go to sleep. It filled her thoughts of what was coming ahead, and all that she had left behind, as well. Johnathan's face suddenly came to mind, and she wondered if he had reached Dol Guldur and found what he was looking for yet, or if he was captured or dead by the Orcs, or if he had come back to Beorn's house only to find them gone. She felt a stirring of guilt as she thought about that, but it was instantly quenched at the more pressing matter of Mirkwood looming before her.

Gandalf had said she would lead them in his stead, but he had also confirmed that they would be captured by the Wood-Elves, which made her even more confused than she already was; how was she supposed to lead the Company if they were sitting in the dungeons of the Woodland King? And try as she might, she couldn't remember for the life of her how they had ended up escaping the Woodland Realm, no matter how hard she racked her brains. She had a nagging suspicion it had something to do with barrels, but that thought was so absurd she put it out of her mind immediately, feeling frustration building inside of her. It was like everything from Mirkwood to the Battle of the Five Armies was a giant blur, incomprehensible with only a few key points jumping out at her, like the dragon, and the gold-sickness, and the Line of Durin's deaths, but other than that she couldn't remember anything in detail, and she wished for about the millionth time she had listened to Gandalf at the bus stop and reread 'The Hobbit' so she knew what awaited them next.

And then, thinking of Gandalf reminded her of what the Wizard had left to do, and she felt another shiver of panic all over again. The Shadow, the Necromancer, Sauron…were they all the same person? Was this Dark Lord that had been destroyed over a thousand years ago making his return? And what was the main purpose behind this, really? The questions kept swirling, faster and faster, keeping her awake as she thought about everything that she had been tasked with, and everything she was supposed to face in this quest if she were to save the line of Durin and return home. Galadriel's voice began to echo in her head, creating a backdrop to her thoughts as they kept persisting.

"A Shadow watches you, Maethor, a Shadow that will try to consume you. You will have to be the light that sees in darkness, or I fear you will fall, and these two worlds with you."

The she-Elf's voice resounded in her head continuously, and Alison's numbing fear began to be slowly replaced by a fiery resolve, a sense that she could see through the darkness ahead, and she would lead them all to salvation, no matter the cost to her.

She would be the light in darkness. And she would see the darkness vanquished.

It felt like he had only closed his eyes for a second before Kili was being shaken awake by Bofur, and he sat up blearily, blinking his fitful night's sleep out of his eyes as the pungent, rotting smell of Mirkwood once again filled his nostrils and the same silence greeted his ears.

Around him, the rest of the Company was beginning to stir, as well, all subdued and wary as they began to pack up their belongings, their eyes scanning the gloom cautiously, looking exhausted and wan from their poor night's rest. As Kili began to pack his own belongings, Bombur was making rounds throughout the Company, handing out pieces of bread and dried fruits for them to get on their bellies before setting out.

Kili accepted his small share with thanks, wishing that Beorn had packed them with dried meats or something of the sort so he didn't have to feel like a squirrel, but he knew he shouldn't be complaining. He was just glad they actually did have food instead of having to go hungry for most of their journey through the forest, however long that would take; it had only been roughly a day since entering Mirkwood, but Kili felt as if he'd been stuck there for weeks and was no closer to leaving than he had been at the start.

"Eat quickly," Thorin said as Kili finished packing, and he looked up to see his uncle pacing around their root-filled camping spot, the grey smoke from the recently put-out fire seeming to follow him as he walked. "I want to start back on the path as soon as possible. I don't like what being off of it could mean, and the longer we are here the better chance there is of something finding us."

The Company obeyed him without question, and Kili devoured his breakfast in only a few minutes, already feeling uneasy as he imagined many watchful eyes on the back of his neck, no matter which position he shifted himself to, and he was all too glad when Thorin announced it was time for them to go.

The Dwarves, Bilbo, and Alison all merged back onto the path, and they waited uneasily as Nori and Bombur scattered the remains of their fire so they wouldn't be tracked until the two Dwarves rejoined them.

"Right, then," Thorin said. "Let's go." And he started back down the path, the rest of the Company following closely behind as they began another day's long trek through Mirkwood.

Kili seemed to trail listlessly along the path, his limbs heavy with fatigue and his mind cloudy. Vaguely remembering Gandalf's words about the forest air being heavy with illusion, Kili shook his head like a dog trying to rid its ears of water, but it barely worked, his mind as foggy as ever. Mirkwood was a relentless malice, attempting to creep into his body and lull him off the path, and the light itself was no better; it never changed, remaining the same constant dimness with no indication of whether it was night or day, which was more disorienting than anything, and it was all Kili could do to keep his eyes on Óin's back without tripping or stumbling off of the path.

He was so wrapped up in his fatigue and making sure he stayed upright that he didn't even notice Fili was beside him until after a few minutes. Kili looked over to his brother, raising an eyebrow in a questioning way.

"You feel it too, eh?" the blonde Dwarf said, and his voice sounded garbled in Kili's ears, though the younger prince nodded all the same.

"I feel so…drained," Kili replied haltingly. "Like I've been…sleeping for a hundred years and I'm trying to get used to being awake again."

Fili nodded slowly, keeping his grey-blue eyes on the path as they continued to walk along. "I agree. This place…there is something terribly wrong with it. How can one forest feel so…wrong?"

"I don't know," Kili said, as they paused while Dwalin and Thorin uncovered more of the path so they could continue. They took a turn to the left, heading deeper into the dark trees as they followed the path, the Dwarves almost lifeless as they shuffled along.

The two brothers fell into silence, but a nagging thought cropped up in the back of Kili's cloudy mind, and before he knew what he was saying, he blurted out, "So, you and Alison aren't courting?"

Fili looked at his brother with distant surprise and annoyance, glancing around covertly to see if anyone was listening, but the others paid them no attention, too fixated on their sleepy feet on the path and scanning the surrounding trees to bother with their conversation.

"No, we aren't," his brother replied flatly. "We agreed not to start anything, seeing as our paths would not allow it in the future. It's over and done with, and that is it, Kili. Nothing else to add."

Kili nodded thoughtfully, taking a few moments to process Fili's words, but when he did, he felt a faint guttering of something in his chest, almost as if he were…pleased that there was nothing going on between his brother and Alison anymore, and he was confused by the sensation. Surely he didn't care about his brother's relationship with the girl…did he?

Kili shook his head fiercely once more, trying to banish the thoughts. Now was not the time to be thinking of these sorts of things, if ever. It was already established that a Dwarf and a human warrior could never be anything, so what was the point in dwelling on it? There was no purpose whatsoever—

Kili suddenly stopped moving, and he looked down to see his brother's arm crossing his chest in a protective manner. Confused, the younger Dwarf looked up and saw that Óin had stopped in front of him, and Dwalin and Thorin before him, all staring at something ahead of them.

"Why have we—oh," Kili said, noticing what the problem was as he craned his neck around Óin's head. "That's why."

In front of the Company stretched a dark expanse of stagnant water, murky green and black in the dim light of the forest, and the shadows were so thick here that Kili couldn't see the other side of the stream, for that was what it undoubtedly was.

"What do we do?" he heard Dwalin say from in front. "Beorn said to avoid any of the water for it is poisonous, and I don't see any way across."

Thorin stayed silent, thinking, and Kili felt a light brush on his shoulder. He looked to his left and saw Bilbo walking past him, moving to the front of the throng where Thorin and Dwalin were, and he heard the Hobbit say, "There is a way across. There's a boat on the other side of the stream, over there—" He saw the Hobbit point somewhere to their right, and Kili was impressed by his keen eyesight as he looked as well and saw nothing, save for the gloominess of the forest. He focused back in on what the Hobbit was saying as Bilbo went on. "If we can use the rope we have and a hook, we can snare the boat and drag it to this bank, and then we can ferry it back and forth until everyone is across, for it is awfully small. Maybe two or three at a time, is my guess."

Thorin nodded. "Good plan, Master Baggins," he said, clapping Bilbo on the shoulder. "Fili, bring up the rope and hook since you have them, and we'll try to snag this boat."

Fili nodded, walking up to where Thorin and Bilbo stood, and Kili followed out of curiosity, a newfound sense of vigor buoying him up and breaking loose some of the strands of fog clouding his mind, allowing him to feel more clear-headed as he came up on Thorin's left shoulder and watched Fili prepare the rope and hook to use.

When he had finished, he stood back up and readied the rope in his hands as Bilbo directed him where to throw it. "Look, there, past the tree I'm pointing at. It's about twelve yards to the other side, and the boat doesn't appear to be tied up. Just get the hook on it and pull it back towards us."

Fili nodded, and in the next several moments he had thrown the rope across the stream. There was a heartbeat of silence, before there was the sound of a splash, and Bilbo, who had been squinting into the shadows, shook his head. "A little more to your right," the Hobbit said, as Fili dragged the rope back to shore.

He was hesitant on touching the rope after it had gone into the water, but Alison, who had approached behind Thorin and Kili along with the rest of the Company, said, "I don't think the water will hurt you if it's just on the rope. It won't be potent with the magic until you actually get into the water."

Fili looked doubtful, but he held the rope again anyway and prepared for another throw, Bilbo still telling him where to aim as the Dwarves looked on anxiously.

Kili looked to Alison beside him, and he noticed then the shadows under her eyes, as if she hadn't slept well the night before, contrasting against her tan skin, which looked sallow and grey in the light, and her dark clothes, giving her the illusion of a sickly person though Kili knew she was fine. She met his eyes, and even the icy-green of those seemed dull, and Kili was oddly reminded of the fact that Fili wasn't courting her before he pushed that thought away instantly, slightly ashamed of himself for thinking of that right then.

"Since when did you become an expert on magical waters?" he asked teasingly instead, but she didn't smile, her eyes staring at the water with a sort of wary look in the depths.

"I'm not," she said distractedly, and before Kili could ask her what was wrong, there was a sudden cheer from beside them that faded quickly among the close-growing trees, and they looked over to see Fili carefully pulling back in the rope, obviously having succeeded in getting the hook into the boat and pulling it to their shore. As Kili watched, he saw a small, run-down boat emerge from the shadows lying across the stream, looking moldy and dilapidated, but it was still afloat, which gave him some small hope that they could make it across without being dumped into the water.

Fili pulled the boat up onto the shore, and the Company stared at it anticlimactically as it bobbed gently in the murky waters, jostled a little bit from the ripples it had made on the surface.

"Well," Kili said, to break the tense silence. "Who's first?"

"I'll go," Thorin volunteered. "We'll need to have one group of four, since Bombur can only have one other person with him, so I'll take Dwalin, Bilbo, and Fili." The others all nodded at this, including Bombur, not even fazed about the fact that his girth could possibly sink the whole entire boat, and Thorin continued to list the groups, putting Kili with Óin and Balin and Alison last with Bombur since she was the lightest besides Bilbo, but Thorin needed the Hobbit and his sharp eyes in the first group to guide them safely to the opposite shore.

The first three Dwarves and Hobbit all carefully piled into the boat, and they found to their relief that the craft held together as they settled in.

"Wait," Dwalin said. "What are we supposed to use for oars?" For they had noticed then that there weren't any oars to steer the boat, and they were quite stumped until Fili came up with an ingenious idea to throw the hook once more and catch it on the other side to pull them to the shore, and then toss it back and forth for the next groups to cross.

Considering this was their only option at this point, they all grudgingly agreed and waited as Fili threw the rope once again and caught it in the tree branches on the other side, then they began to slowly and painstakingly make their way across the unmoving stream as the rest of the Company waited impatiently on the opposite shore, wanting to get across the stream and be done with it already, which Kili could understand.

Kili waited, his nerves jangling from the feeling of being watched, but whenever he looked around he could see nothing; maybe a hint of gleaming eyes here and there, but other than that, nothing, and he kept his bow in his hands as a precaution, twanging the bowstring almost subconsciously as he saw Alison pacing beside him out of the corner of his eye.

She seemed lost deep in thought, occasionally frowning and scrunching her eyebrows together at the ground, and anxious, though it was nowhere near the level of anxiety she had showed in the Misty Mountains before they were taken by the goblins, for which he was grateful for. Seeing her like that back then had squeezed his heart painfully, and he was just glad that she didn't seem to be retreating back into that haze of fear and panic that had kept her so closed off for all of those weeks as they continued to wait.

He thought about making conversation with her, but she seemed so wrapped up in her thoughts Kili didn't want to disturb her; living with his mother, Kili had learned not to bother a woman when she's thinking, for he was likely to be snapped at for annoying them, so he just decided to keep quiet and leave her be as he watched Nori, Dori, and Ori cross next, and then he would be in the group after them.

When the boat came back to their side of the shore, Kili clambered in with Óin and Balin and the three Dwarves began to make for the opposite bank by way of the hook-and-rope system, and Kili watched the stream go by nervously, wondering what would happen to them if they were to suddenly tip over and fall into the eerie water below. Probably something highly unpleasant, like their skin erupting into boils and killing them outright, or something as equally awful as that.

Fortunately they didn't have to find out, and after several more minutes of being dragged along the stagnant water, they reached the opposite bank and stumbled ashore, trying to avoid touching the water as they got out. Then came even more waiting as the next group consisting of Bofur, Bifur, and Glóin crossed, and then lastly came Bombur and Alison.

Kili watched them appear out of the gloom like the ghost ships rumored to be sailing around the island of Himling to the west of Ered Luin by the sea, Alison in front and doing most of the pulling while Bombur sat in the back, the stern of the boat sagging a bit under his weight, but luckily not letting any water in as they inched their way across the stream.

Everything was going fine until the deer.

Kili heard a sudden rustle from behind him in the undergrowth, and he spun around quickly, raising his bow and nocking an arrow as the rest of the Company turned and brandished their own weapons as a deer came charging out of the undergrowth towards them, bleating fearfully before bounding to the water's edge and launching itself across the stream, right over Alison and Bombur's heads.

Kili let his arrow fly, nailing the deer in the gut, but it was too late; the creature had already landed awkwardly on the other side of the stream and taken off, still bleating, and the damage was already done.

Startled by the deer soaring above their heads, Bombur had jerked violently in his seat, and with his weight it was too much for the vessel. The boat tipped threateningly, and the two passengers cried out, attempting to flip it back over, but it was no use. The boat capsized, and with a small shriek and a strangled yell, Alison and Bombur were thrown into the murky waters, and their heads promptly disappeared under the surface.

"Alison!" Kili yelled, running to the water's edge, and the rest of the Company followed after him, fearing the worst as their friends' heads did not re-emerge from the water.

Kili couldn't think about anything but Alison, possibly drowning or dying a horrible death under the water, and he threw his bow down, preparing to launch himself into the stream until Fili grabbed his arm and said, "Kili, don't!"

Kili turned on his brother with a disbelieving stare, his heart thudding rapidly as his survival instincts kicked in, though this time they were for Alison and Bombur, not himself. "Fili, are you mad?" he said, shock coloring his voice as he met his brother's eyes. "They could be drowning right now! I thought you cared about Alison?"

Fili's eyes hardened at his brother's words, but he kept his grip firm on Kili's arm as he said, "Of course I care about her! But getting yourself killed won't help anybody, and if they—"

But he was cut off abruptly as there was a sudden splash from the middle of the stream, and everyone watched in amazement as a brown-haired head broke the surface, coughing and spewing out water, and Kili's heart leaped as Alison grasped for the rope, now trailing in the water, and with a grunt of effort, she hoisted Bombur's head above the surface, the ginger Dwarf appearing to be unconscious as his head lolled in her arms.

"Get the rope!" Thorin said urgently, and Fili and Kili ran over to it immediately, watching as Alison tried to knot the rope under Bombur's arms, a task that would be extremely difficult in the water, but after a few heart-pounding moments, she managed to tie the knot. Fili and Kili began to pull the rope securing Bombur as Alison paddled haphazardly along the unconscious Dwarf's side, keeping his head above the water as they reached the shore, Bombur flopping limply onto the bank as Alison dragged herself onto solid ground and promptly collapsed, her face pale and her lips white.

As the rest of the Company gathered around Bombur to see why he hadn't woken, Fili and Kili rushed to Alison's side and knelt down beside her as she stirred faintly. Fili pounded her on the back, hard, eliciting an indignant groan from her before she began to retch up mouthfuls of the foul water, spitting as she heaved herself shakily to her knees.

"Was that really necessary?" she asked Fili, rubbing her back. "I think you cracked my spine in half."

"This water's poisoned, Alison," Fili reminded her. "I had to make sure you got it all out of your body lest something should happen to you."

She only nodded in reply, smoothing some clinging strands of wet hair from her face as she regained her breath, and Kili watched her in concern as her face slowly turned back to its normal color.

"Oh, I don't believe this!" Bofur said from behind them, and the three turned around to see the Dwarf let out a guffaw of laughter. "I don't—he's sleeping!" he said, pointing to the unconscious Bombur, and sure enough, the sound of the Dwarf's rumbling snores began to punctuate the air.

Kili, grinning slightly, turned back to Alison as the others attempted to try and revive the immense Dwarf, and he said in puzzlement, "Why aren't you asleep, then?"

Alison shrugged. "Not enough water in my system?" she suggested, and Kili nodded, getting back to his feet and offering her a hand. She took it and stood up, a bit shakily, but there didn't seem to be anything wrong with her, which Kili was thankful for.

"Why is it always you that falls in the water?" he asked jokingly, and she cracked a grin.

"Daughter of Poseidon," she replied. "The element calls to me."

Kili gazed at her in bafflement at her strange words, worry taking hold of him again. "Oh, Mahal, you're already going mad—"

"I was joking, idiot," she said exasperatedly, cutting off his concerned babble, though her eyes held a trace of a smile. "Now c'mon, let's try and get Bombur to wake up."

Which was an easier task said than done. After nearly a half-hour (or more; really, it was impossible to tell time in Mirkwood), Bombur finally stirred, vomiting up great portions of water and then groaning in exhaustion and attempting to go back to sleep, but the Company nudged and prodded him into an upright position, managing to keep him on his feet as Thorin ordered them to move on, continuing along the path as it snaked away deeper into the heart of the forest.

The Company followed after the Dwarf king, hefting their packs higher on their shoulders as they began to trek through the trees again. Alison started after them, stumbling slightly as she took a step forward, but Kili steadied her, his concern mounting high again as he grasped her shoulders to keep her from falling on her face.

"Alison, what's wrong?" he asked worriedly, as she touched her hand to her temple, frowning. "I thought you got all of the water out of your system?"

"I did," she said. "I'm just a little dizzy, that's all." Seeing his continued look, she rolled her eyes. "I'm fine, Kili. You'd be light-headed too if you had almost drowned, and especially since you're supporting an unconscious Bombur at the same time."

He only nodded, not entirely convinced, but before he could press the matter Fili appeared ahead of them on the path, the rope slung over his arm as his eyes lingered on Kili's hands on Alison's shoulders. Kili retracted his hands quickly, instead bending down to pick up his bow as Fili said, "Come on, we need to keep moving. We still have a lot of ground to cover before we rest for the night."

Alison and Kili nodded, and they continued down the path all together, hurrying to catch up with the others. They walked in silence after the rest of the Company, Alison moving more steadily, and though he knew she and Fili were no longer courting, he still noticed how closely the two walked next to each other, their shoulders just barely brushing, and Kili felt another stirring of…something in his chest, some strange feeling he had rarely ever felt before, but he pushed it aside instantly. Their task at hand was to try and make it through Mirkwood alive, and dwelling on his thoughts about his brother's and Alison's relationship had no room in that.

Shaking his head, Kili followed after them, but was brought up short as he walked face-first into something sticky and white, and he stumbled back with a sharp "What in Durin's name—"

Alison and Fili turned to look at him as he scrabbled at his cheek, peeling off strings of something that looked suspiciously like spider webbing; and sure enough, when he looked up, there were the tattered remains of a spider web trailing from a low-hanging branch, precisely the same height as him as he continued to pull off the sticky webbing.

"Ugh, disgusting," he said, attempting to flick it off of his hands, but the webbing held fast, and he groaned, wiping it off on his cloak as Alison and Fili sniggered in front of him.

"What?" he said sourly, looking up to see them both staring at him amusedly. "You'd be doing the same thing if you had walked into a spider web with your face."

Fili chuckled, shaking his head and clapping his brother on the back as Kili fell into step beside him once more. "Eyesight like a hawk, eh?" he teased, and Kili rolled his eyes exasperatedly, shaking his head while a grin tugged at his lips all the same.

Kili looked over to Alison as the two brothers started after the others, and he saw her standing, staring at the spider web with a puzzled look in her eyes, as if she were trying to think of an answer for a complicated riddle.

"Uh, Alison?" he said, and she blinked, turning to look at him. "We should go."

She nodded, falling into step on Fili's other side as the three made their way down the path, but Kili noticed her looking back over her shoulder at the spider web again, frowning in frustration as a crease appeared between her eyebrows, as if the web was bothering her by simply being there. Once it was out of sight, however, she turned and faced the front again, though her expression was still troubled, and Kili felt his own gut clench in foreboding the farther into the dark trees they went. He had a bad feeling something was going to happen, and soon, and the warning did not settle lightly on his heart.

High above them, in the top-most branches of the twisted trees, they did not notice the tiny spider following their movements with its many faceted eyes, its small pincers clicking excitedly. It scuttled away among the webs spanning the tree-tops, deeper into the heart of the forest, eager to alert its masters of what it had found. Soon, very soon, there would be a feast, and the spider skittered away, the dark forest as still and silent as ever as it disappeared into the shadows.

And we all know what's coming next...

So, they're in Mirkwood! *squeals excitedly while rubbing hands together menacingly* Yess, my preciouss, yess...

And the stakes for the Shadow have been raised as Gandalf leaves to solve the mystery, and, let's get real, did you really think I was going to dump Alison into the enchanted water without some sort of consequence? Ah, this should be interesting come next chapter...

Anyway, thank you for all of your reviews last time, they are greatly appreciated! Please keep them coming!:)

Thanks again, lovelies. Until next chapter...

(And if you want to hmu on Tumblr it's dr-watsonn... just putting that out there)

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