Chapter 2: A Murky Wood
A Murky Wood
After a little coercion, the bear-like man agrees to lend us a troop of ponies that we might have a better chance of reaching the forest alive. I stand outside with the marvelous creatures as the others gather up their belongings and see to shining their weapons. I think of my own sword, lost in amongst the Goblin battle, and feel somewhat lost without its comforting weight by my side. The empty scabbard at my hip swings, forlorn and lost like the flag of a sunken ship. The pony eagerly munches a yellowish apple from my palm, huffing occasionally and tossing his long mane in between crunches of the overly ripe fruit.
"Say what you like about Fenrir Greyback in there," I say to myself, stroking the side of the horses' lovely face with a gentle hand, "but he sure knows how to look after his animals. You're a handsome thing, aren't you?"
"Do you really think so?" a voice says, and Kili emerges from the cottage, all packed up and grinning. I feign throwing the apple core at him and he ducks out of the way.
"I was talking to the horse," I tell him as he pouts, pretending to be offended. He takes the reigns of my pony and mounts her, pulling me up beside him and trotting out a little into the outskirts of one of Beorn's orchards.
"Shouldn't we wait for the others?"
"They're all arguing over whether or not to eat breakfast before leaving. I say rather than squabbling, we should be proactive and get our own." We ride in silence for a while through the feathery-leaved trees, the sun soaking into our skin and lifting our hearts. A huge bumble bee buzzes past, dancing with the morning, and I whip my hood up and go full turtle-mode, hunching my shoulders high in order to protect my neck. I close my eyes, clutching on to the pony's reigns, and try my very hardest to blot out the indecent buzzing of the gargantuan creature.
"It won't harm you unless you try to harm it," Kili says.
"Well, I've got no intention of going anywhere near that thing," I shudder, shaking all over. "I'm terrified of insects, plus I'm anaphylactic. One sting from that monster of a garden insect, that- that honey-making horror- and I'll be dead, kaput, finito. There are no EpiPen's in Middle Earth."
Kili reaches up into a tree as we ride and plucks a bright red apple, shining it on the leather of his collar before rolling it down his arm and catching it in his hand. He offers it to me with a bow. "My lady."
"Show off," I grin, biting into the crisp red flesh and smiling as the juices envelop my mouth and drip down my chin. Kili watches in slight horror, taking a neat bite into his own fruit.
"You eat like a child," he tells me, quickly deciding that the apple isn't to his taste and flings it away into a near by bush.
"Not all of us had a royal upbringing, your royal highness," I mock with a grin, "we don't all have princely manners... besides, I've seen the way you devour chicken. You eat like a Dwarf."
He laughs. "There's good reason for that... you say it like it's a bad thing."
"Oh, I'm not saying anything." Out of the blue I think of Josie, and suddenly feel guilty for allowing myself to be happy for even a moment whilst she's lost out there. Kili senses the change in my attitude, and I think he understands why.
"Come on," he says gently after a few minutes of silent reflection, veering the pony out of the orchard. "We should be getting back."
When we arrive back at the cottage, the others are mounted and ready to leave. It is clear from Thorin's expression that our absence has been noted; he pulls on the reins of his steed and leads the company away from the cottage. Kili jumps down from my pony and up onto his own, riding after his uncle quickly as he can.
"Go now," Beorn calls behind us, "whilst you have the light. Your hunters will not be far behind, that you can be sure of."
"This way, all of you," Gandalf directs. As we, Fili falls at a trot beside me.
"You and my brother ought be a little more cautious of how much time you spend with one another, my dear Lavender. Such closeness between the pair of you makes my uncle suspicious of your intentions."
"My... uh... my intentions?"
He smiles knowingly. "Uncle has noted already how Kili and yourself seem to have grown fond of one another. Thorin notices everything. As do I; a family trait that has not been passed onto my dear brother."
"You make your uncle sound like something supernatural."
Fili smiles. "Sometimes I wonder if he is."
An hour or so later, and we have reached the edge of the Mirkwood forest. A pathway has been cut through the forest's edge, lined with trees cut like antlers, all leading up to a menacing-looking podium which makes me think of a sacrificial table. The table is flanked by two ornate statues of Elves, one a male in full ornate armour, the other female and cloaked in a shroud. All is grey and stone, cold, unlike the colourful gem-encrusted architecture of the Rivendell Elves. I clutch the jewel around my neck, the intricate moonstone given to me by the lady of light, and reflect upon how this place does not feel safe. Gandalf traces his long fingers over the face of one of the statues and frowns. "Here lies our path through Mirkwood. Set the ponies loose, let them return to their master."
As the young mares run free, Bilbo shuffles forwards. "This forest feels sick. As if a disease lies upon it. Is there... is there no way around?"
"Not unless we go two hundred miles north, or twice that distance south..." Gandalf touches the face of the female statue, and as he does, the necklace around my throat seems to become heavier; I pull at the chain, easing it from my neck, and shake off the sudden wave of dizziness that overcomes me. I pinch my eyes shut, and when I open them again find that the others are shouting after the Wizard, who has mounted his horse and taken off in the other direction. His robes flow in a rush of wind as he gallops from the company to destinations unknown, staff in hand.
"Where the bloody hell is he going?!" I cry out, "Gandalf!"
"Come on," Thorin barks, "we've got one chance to find the hidden door. Into the forest, now; the path turns this way."
We take after Thorin and into the darkness of Mirkwood, with its gnarled roots and snagging branches. The forest smells musky, sweet yet so heavy it becomes a burned to the nostrils. My feet begin to ache again, my bruised leg throbbing, and I cry out to ask how long we have been walking; it seems like days, years... or perhaps only minutes? With every step further, the path seems to grow, onwards and onwards into the black trees.
"Keep moving," Thorin says from the front, hauling away a tree branch which has fallen into our path.
"Air," Gloin barks, scratching at his thick throat, "I need air."
"How much further?" Balin gags as we enter a particularly dense patch of forest, "we... we cannot go on like this."
"Air!" Gloin yells again, "we need air, for Durin's sake!"
Nori overtakes Thorin eventually, and halts at the front of the group. I grapple with the necklace around my throat as it becomes heavier and heavier, holding tightly to the moonstone and praying that we will soon leave this cursed woodland.
"Nori, why have we stopped?"
Nori gestures ahead of himself, and into a black abyss. The path has come to an end.
"We've lost the path!" Oin yammers, pulling at the threads of his cloak in rustration and muttering beneath his breath in ancient Khuzdul.
"Find it!" Thorin demands, "all of you, look! Look for the path!"
"We can't spit up," I murmur, clutching onto the back of Fili's coat to keep upright. "If we... if we lose each other..."
"It's here!" Ori yells triumphantly, "I found it, it's here!"
A few of the others gather around, only to find that Ori has found nothing at all; he stares down at the patch of ground with pride as Dori whacks him around the ear and drags him along.
"We're losing our senses in here," Kili murmurs, rubbing hard at his forehead, "I can't... I can't even..."
Thorin gives a cry of frustration from somewhere in the distance. "Is there no end to this accursed forest?!"
"Stay with me, Lavender," Kili tries, his arm clutching my sleeve, "stay... we can't get lost, you can't get lost... Fili...?"
I ignore him in my search for a way out, head reeling as I scour the filthy forest floor, slipping through mud and filth. I walk straight into a dew-spattered cobweb and give a cry of distain, which Kili answers with a yell of my name.
"Lavender?! Stay there, I'm... I'm coming!"
I fight to free myself of the feathery web, puling great chunks of spiders' silk from my face as I stumble onwards, and then backwards...
And then downwards.
I scream as I fall, tumbling down the side of a bank and into a new expanse of darkness. I struggle to my feet, aching all over, and search around for the others; staring up at the sky, I see dark shapes overhead, moving through the interlocked spider webs and towards the clearing where the company searches. The shapes vanish, and I hear the Dwarves cry out in panic.
"No," I mumble, "No, you..."
For a moment I am back at home, staring at my bedroom ceiling. Sunlight is shimmering through the window, and I can feet the weight of my cat, Misty, pressed against my feet. Then my eyes roll into the back of my head, and I'm lying still on the forest floor.
"Hello?!" I yell, tumbling unsteadily backwards and landing on my knees in a shallow swamp, "hello?! I... I'm here! Someone... someone help!"
Soaked with mud, I pull myself through the wet filth and to my feet. I lean against a tree trunk, fighting again with the heavy jewel at my throat; it feels like a weight now, my own crucifix to bear, strangling me, crushing me... I fight to unclasp it but my fingers are not steady enough. I pull at the chain but haven't the strength to pull the well-made links free. As I close my eyes and admit defeat, wanting only to sleep, I hear laughter through the trees.
"Jos!" I yell, searching around for her, "Josie, where are you?!"
She laughs again, taunting me, teasing me. Wouldn't you like to know, Ally Cat?"Josie, you... you have to come here! I told you I'd find you, I've...
No. I found you, silly. Stupid. Couldn't find me, could you? Couldn't even stop me getting here. Now come on, Alice. Catch me if you can.
I hear her footsteps thundering away from me, and see the flash of that horrific neon unicorn dress she is so fond of through the trees. She laughs again, a flash of poorly dyed purplish-brown hair grinning at me through the leaves this time, and I chase her on weak legs, ignoring the blisters and the bruising and fighting onwards, desperate to reach her.
Na-na-na-na-na, you can't catch me...
"Jos, wait! This isn't funny!"
She laughs again, cruelly this time, a laugh full of malice and distain. Almost as though she isn't my Josie. Yes it is, stupid. Hurry up, Alice, you're running out of time!
And then there is a scream, so shrill and unbearable that it almost stops my heart. For a moment I think it is my own, but no... it was Josie, my Josie, and she needs me, she needs me...
I run, and when I stop, it is because the world has stopped with me.
I fall to my knees beside the dead body of my best friend, and scream.
Josie lies there, eyes open, not moving. I reach out to touch her, but find that I can't; my hand goes straight through her chest. I suddenly remember the necklace at my throat and how much of a burden it has become, how heavy it feels, and manage to compose myself long enough as to undo its clasp and cast it away from me, into the mud. When I look down to Josie again, she is gone.
In her place is nothing but the leaf-strewn forest floor and the howling of the wind. Branches crack in the trees above, and as I glance upwards with fright, I see a huge looming figure moving towards me through the branches. Tendrils spread from its body, thick and black and constantly in motion.
As I realise what it is, it drops from the tree and lands right in front of me.
A spider. A huge, gargantuan, big-ass spider.
I scream at the top of my lungs, and the creature lunges; I throw out my arm to stop it as it lets out a terrible hiss, and before I can scrabble away from it it plunges its fang deep into my forearm. Screaming, I try to run away, but my body is already becoming numb; blood gushes from my arm as I lurch backwards through the mud. The spider withdraws its chelicherae and retreats a little, poised to jump in for another attack.
Oh God, this is it. Really, this time, I'm going to be actually, properly dead. This vicious unholy creature is going to wrap me up in it's abdominal silk and pump me full of digestive fluid until I dissolve like so many hopes and dreams, then it'll drink everything it finds inside like a demented slush puppy...
And then the spider screams, its legs spasm and its pincers flare; I close my eyes and pray, wondering for a split second what's really on the other side...if there is an other side.
...Was that it? Is it over? Am I...
I open my eyes, but what stands before me is not Saint Peter or Beelzebub himself. I'm not staring into eternal darkness, and I haven't been reincarnated as a slug.
Instead, a beautiful fiery-haired woman towers over before me; for a fleeting second I wonder if she might be an angel, before I see the blue-smeared blade in her hand and the bow-and-arrow at her back. The spider lies dead on the floor, an arrow through one of its many beady black eyes and a fountain of royal blue gushing from its abdomen. She wipes her blade quickly on the skirt of her leaf-green tunic, straightens her bodice and glares at me through dark, glittering eyes.