Chapter 1: The Missing Link
The Missing Link
"Tell her to keep up," Thorin calls from the front of the group. Fili trudges along beside me, the rain turning his usually golden hair an unpleasant shade of mustard.
"Keep up, Lavender," he says dryly, tapping my shoulder reassuringly and fighting with his loose scabbard. He sighs, dragging his feet through the thickening mud. The younger of the two brothers turns back to me and offers his arm. I lean against it thankfully, wincing at the pain in my bruised leg. Blisters prick the soles of my feet, pockets of poison buried deep beneath the raw flesh.
"We ought make camp soon," I hear Bofur say, glancing back towards me with a frown. "The dark will be upon us."
"No," I hear the wizened Wizard say. "Not yet. There are dark things in these parts."
Ori looks fearful. "Orcs?"
Gandalf nods. "Oh, yes, Orcs, no doubt. But it is not Orcs we ought fear this night, young master Dwarf."
That notion makes me hobble along a little quicker, and I am thankful that fear has served to numb the pain in my leg a little. We trudge onwards, Kili and I at the back of the group. I struggle to keep up with the others, but it's no use; eventually I succumb to slowness, and Kili does the same in order to aid me.
"Have you spoken to the Wizard yet?" he asks after a long silence, by which time the first threads of morning have begun to paint their way across the sky, pinks and purples and warm summer blues. I wince as I trip over a tree root, twisting my ankle and making myself even more of a liability. The rest of the group are mere pin-pricks in the distance by now.
"Of course I have. He says that there's nothing he can do, that the best course is to keep to our 'destined path', and that everything will balance itself out in the end; like its fate that Josie herself stuck here, and as though she'll just appear in front of us at some point. She could be lost, scared, alone... she's out there in just her underwear, for God's sake."
"I'm sure she'd have found garments by now."
"She's not even wearing a matching set!"
"Lavender," he says, and stops me on the track. His hands more on to my shoulders and he stares at me, eyes hard as newly polished stone. "You must stop all of this. You have to relax."
"That's easy to say, Kili, but-"
"Easy enough, because it is true, and the truth always flows like honey from the tongue. We're both worried about your friend... my friend. Our Josie. But there's nothing we can do in this moment, is there?"
"There is," I say hastily, and grab the sleeves of his tunic in desperation. "I'll go. I'll go and find her, and then we'll find you again, and we could... we can..." I realise how fool hardy my rushed plan is, and resort to grovelling with the Dwarf. "I know it's a lot to ask for someone you barely know, but... please, Kili. Let's go, just for a little while; we can take some food and look for her, she can't be far and we won't be gone for long, we'll find our way back, we've done it before-"
"That was with the Wizard's help. Lavender, you have to stop all of this-"
"I know, I know it sounds stupid, but hear me out; she's alone out there, and lost, and... she needs us. There are fourteen in the company, they don't need us here, not right now. They all have each other, Jos, she has no one, she... she needs me, and I need you." I laugh a little, hopelessly. "Lets face it- I wouldn't survive a minute out there without you. I wouldn't be asking if I could make it on my own, but... I can't. I need you, Kili."
He sighs. "You're asking me to leave my family, to break my promise, Lavender. I can't, you know that... and neither can you. It would be ill-fated to leave. Besides, you heard what the Wizard said-"
"I can't leave her out there," I interrupt," barely a whisper. "I can't, Ki."
There are tears in my eyes, though the rain hides them well enough. He sighs aloud and pulls away from me a little; the company is far ahead now, and have long forgotten us in their race towards shelter and safety.
"Lavender," he says again, and wraps his arms quickly around me as I fumble for my words, close to tears. "Word of a daughter of man running around the forests will quickly grab some attention; as soon as someone comes across Josie, every inn-keep and tavern wench will have word of it. I grant you, the next person we come across on our journey will know of her, and she'll be safe enough, holed up in an inn or a small village, baking bread for someone or other and waiting for us. When we find her, she shall laugh and tell us that we took our time... don't fret, Lavender. For all of our sakes."
I nod and try for a smile, though I am not convinced.
He brushes a hand over the side of my face. "And you promise me you won't take off with your dirk in the night and go seeking adventures by yourself?"
I laugh a little. "I promise."
"Good. Josie does need you, and you're better alive here than dead out there..." he knocks my blade with the hilt of his own. "Dirk or not."
"It's not a dirk," I protest, pushing him a little, "It's a sword."
"Ah, yes, and I'm Durin the Deathless himself. Come, we need to catch up with the others, before we catch our deaths in this rain-"
The howl of the Wolf makes my blood run cold.
I pull my arms around myself, hobbling ever faster towards the others; Kili, however, stops dead. He grabs my arm to halt me and I feel panic bubbling beneath my skin. A nervous laugh rises within me and I chide,
"Someone sounds hungry. Uh, are there a lot of Wolf packs here?"
Kili shakes his head, dark eyes glittering in the falling darkness. "That was no Wolf. That was a Warg."
"Oh... a Warg. Just our luck."
The others have heard it, too; by the time we catch up with them, Bilbo is scouting ahead, and we receive a brief scalding from Thorin before he orders us all to gather behind a cliff-face. We await the Hobbit's return with uneasy hearts; eventually the scampering of large feet flitters down the side of a nearby hill, and Bilbo re-enters our midst with wide, saucepan eyes.
"How close is the pack?" Thorin demands as the Hobbit struggles to regain his footing, flustered.
"Close. A couple of leagues, no more... but that's not the worst of it."
"The Wargs have picked up our scent," Bofur panics, "they'll smell us-!"
"No, not yet, but we've got another problem-"
"Did they see you? They saw you-!?"
"They'll kill us-!"
"Stop being such a fairy, Ori!"
"No," the Hobbit says over the squabbling brigade, and Gandalf smiles with pride.
"Quiet as a mouse, what did I tell you, excellent burglar material!"
"A- a much bigger problem, actually-"
"Well done, Bilbo!"
"Can you all listen, please?!" Bilbo demands, "I'm trying to tell you that there is something else out there."
Gandalf frowns. "What form did it take... like a- a bear?"
Bilbo looks surprised. "Yes, yes, but bigger, much bigger, much... much larger."
"Wonderful," I frown, "so now there's giant bears, too. Giant man-eating bears, I have no doubt."
"You knew about the beast?" Bofur asks Gandalf, clutching to his purse with fright. The Wizard frowns and turns away. "I say we double back. Go back on ourselves and find a new route."
"What, straight into a pack of Orcs and Wargs?"
Gloin gives a hearty laugh. "We shall not turn tail from a pack of stray dogs."
"Except they're not dogs, are they?" I say sharply, and Gloin quiets.
The Wizard gives a sigh, stamping his heavy staff into the ground. "There is a refuge; a house, not far from here."
"Whose house?" Thorin asks, "friend or foe?"
"Neither," the Wizard says, "or perhaps either. We shall not know until we get there. He shall either help us, or... he will kill us."
I feel my eyes grow wider. We look amongst each other, no one certain of the best course to take. "Where do you meet these people, Gandalf?!"
Eventually, Thorin bows his head. "What choice do we have?"
The Wizard wastes no time in answering, as the huge beast gives a booming growl. "None. Now, run, all of you. Run!"
And so here I am again, Alice Lavender Sorrel, running away from everything and nothing. Kili and Bofur have to half-drag me along; the bruising to my leg was not designed for long-distance running. My heartbeat screams, my feet blister with evermore pockets of poison, and the air raking at the back of my throat grates me with an icy cold. I try to swallow but find that I cannot; it's as though all of the moisture in my body is evaporating as I hobble along on my bruised leg. I see the house, a little cottage in the distance, and hear the others egging each other onwards; Bombur flies past us, faster that I could have ever imagined, and soon enough we are through the hedges, past the gate, and at the door.
"Get it open!" the Wizard roars, and we try our very hardest; the oaken door groans and splinters as we try every measure possible to force it to yield; axes and arrows fly at it, it is pushed and pulled and battered, but to no avail. Some genius tries lifting the barrier, and we practically fall over in our hurry to barricade ourselves inside. Teeth snap through the gap as we force it closed, some pushing on the door, others wrangling with the lock, and others still beating back the jaws of the great black bear who means to tear us to shreds. Once it is done, I fall back against the door, hardly able to breathe, crying from the seething pain which now flares up my wounded leg.
"He's leaving," Ori breathes; Dori grabs hold of him and wrenches him from the door.
"Come away from there! It's... unnatural, this business, all of it. The creature must be under some dark spell!"
"Don't be a fool," the Wizard scalds him, brushing down his cloak and straightening his sagging hat, "he's under no enchantment but his own."
"What in Durin's name was that thing?!" Dori yells; Gandalf grimaces as he sits himself down in a chair which is too large even for him. "That, master Dwarf, was our host. Now get some sleep, all of you. You'll be safe here."
He mutters something under his breath which I don't quite catch... or perhaps I just pretend not to hear.
"Dry those lovely eyes," Bofur says gently to me as I nurse my aching wound on the floor, handing me his filthy rag of a handkerchief discreetly and half-hiding me from view with his form. I thank him gratefully and pull myself together before moving to join the others in the centre of the room.
I fall asleep without realising I've done so, and spend another forlorn day moping around the house, followed by a visit to see Josie in the hospital. Ma asks after Kili's whereabouts, as he occasionally hitches a lift in our car to provide moral support and has been a no-show today, due to the fact that his conscious is still in the realm of Goblins and Wizards. Before he would eagerly make camp beside me every night, fumbling for my hand beneath the covers and forcing himself into sleep as soon as possible, ready to explore the world which is so new to him; now he rarely comes, in part due to the fact that I have become miserable company since Josie's disappearance and consequential hospitalization. When we arrive home I get into bed as soon as possible, and wake to find the others already at breakfast, sat around a large oaken table. At the table's head stands an enormous man, pouring what looks to be a gallon of ewe's milk into a tankard for Kili.
The man is extraordinary; he is covered in hair from head to toe, as muscular as a bull, and more canine-like in appearance than bear-like, so that he resembles many a cliché non-romance-novel werewolf. He wears a tabard of animal skins, and a thick rope belt around his middle. I make my way towards them through free-running goats and chickens which litter the mans house and offer him a steady bow as he locks eyes with me for the first time. He nods back at me, and permits me to sit beside Kili in one of the gargantuan chairs. Bilbo joins us shortly, and appears to be as much in awe of Beorn as I am.
"This is Lavender," Gandalf says in traditional courtesy as I stare wide-eyed at the huge man, "and this, Lavender, is our host, Beorn."
"Pleased to meet you," I mouth, though no words leave my lips.
The huge man nods again then says to Thorin in a voice as rugged as rock being splintered, "so, you are the one they call Oakenshield. Tell me... why is Azog the Defiler hunting you?"
Thorin remains as stern as ever, though a glint of unease can be seen fighting behind those cold blue eyes. He clears his throat. "You know of Azog?"
Beorn gives a slow nod. "My people were the first to live in the mountains, before the Orcs came down from the North. The Defiler killed most of my family, but... some he enslaved." Kili nudges me and gestures to the iron cuffs strangling the wrists of the great man. "Not for work, you understand. For sport. Caging we Skin-Changers and torturing them seemed to amuse him." He pours another jug of ewe's milk and says no more on the matter, until Bilbo prods him futher.
"There are others like you?"
Beorn turns his great head away. "Once there were many."
"Now there is only one." He looks away again and quickly changes the subject. "You need to reach the mountain before the last days of Autumn, before Durin's day falls. You are running out of time." Gandalf mentions something about a murky wood, and Beorn's fist tightens around the arm of his chair so that the veins beneath his wiry skin protrude. "A darkness lies upon that forest. Foul things creep beneath those trees. I hear tale of an alliance between the Orcs of Moria and the Necromancer out in Dol Guldur... I would not venture there except in great need."
I'm about to suggest to the Wizard that we take this grand old advice and find a new path when he proclaims, "We take the Elven road. That path is still safe."
"The Wood-Elves of Mirkwood are not like their kin," Beorn warns, "they are less wise and more dangerous. But it matters not... these lands are crawling with Orcs. Their numbers are growing, and you are on foot." He stands, abandoning his place at the table and heading for the door.
"You shall never reach the forest alive."
AN: Aww Beorn you big squishy man-bear
Did thou enjoyest this chapter, folks? Let me know what you thought, and hope you all have a great day!