“So, you see, I was making sure Mirkwood was passable for the company,” Gandalf explained. “In its current state, it is not.”
“What are you saying?” Kili asked. “That we can’t go through?”
“Let him finish,” Thorin scolded.
“The forest has seemingly…twisted upon itself,” Gandalf continued. “Even the path would likely not keep you safe, just going in the general direction you need to. As well as, from the best I could gather, a large number of unusual beasts that have moved into the wood, and the fact that it is the Elvenking’s land.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Dwalin huffed.
“It would be best if you did not cross paths with any of his guards, many of whom are patrolling due to the darkness growing in the forest,” Gandalf explained. “So as a favor to you all, I have arranged for two guides who have a few ideas for avoiding those patrols and some excuses should you run into them anyway.”
“Guides?” Bilbo asked. “So you’re not coming with us?”
“I have other things I must attend to,” Gandalf said. “Deeply urgent things. The guides will meet us at the gate and explain the situation as best they know it.”
“Forgive me for not liking the sound of that,” Thorin said.
“You do not have to like it, Master Oakenshield, only accept it,” Gandalf said. “Here we are. Let the ponies go back to their master.”
As the company all shouldered their packs and weapons Fili asked, “So where are these guides?”
“Not late, I’d hope!” came from behind them.
“Ah, Estel, Greenleaf,” Gandalf said. “Thank you for doing this for me.”
Bilbo noticed all the dwarves go stiff, not at the rugged Man, but the elf behind him.
“You’re welcome, Mithrandir,” the elf said politely. “I doubt anyone should try crossing these woods without escort anymore, myself.”
“And why’s that?” Fili asked, glaring at the elf.
“Primarily the giant spiders,” the elf drawled. “And the path being all-but destroyed at this point. And the current mood of the king.”
“Let’s just say if he did find you lot he’d be even less disposed to letting you through that he would normally have been,” the man said. “We’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“And you trust these two, wizard?” Thorin asked.
“Absolutely,” Gandalf said. “I shall leave you now. Greenleaf, Estel, I leave them to you.”
The wizard turned his horse around and galloped off. Bilbo swallowed at the tension filling the air.
“Anyone with ranged weapons, keep them out at all times,” Estel said. “Legolas, you go ahead, see how the path’s faring. Everyone else, with me.”
The elf vanished into the forest and Bilbo watched the dwarrow’s eyes follow him.
“He will not do you harm,” the ranger said, pulling his own bow off his back. “I swear it.”
“We have not had the best track record with elves,” Balin said diplomatically as they followed the man into the woods.
“Legolas knows the deterioration of these woods better than I,” Estel said. “So I’m afraid you need him for now.”
“And our plans for dealing with the king?” Thorin asked gruffly.
“If at all possible, do not encounter him,” Estel said. “Avoid the elven patrols. If we cannot avoid the patrols then Legolas will distract them and I’ll take you the rest of the way.”
“Patrols over spiders?” Nori asked.
“Over spiders larger than those ponies you just released,” the elf said, reappearing. “Estel, the path is covered but intact until that pit we located a few days ago.”
“Well, that’s something,” Estel sighed. He turned to Thorin, “Master Dwarf, other than the three of us with bows, what ranged weaponry does this company have?”
“Fili and a few others have throwing knives,” Thorin said. “A couple of us have darts as well.”
“Don’t bother with the darts against the spiders, their skin is too thick,” Legolas said. “There’s also a lot more webs after the gorge than there were last I saw. Touch none of them.”
“We know how spider webs work,” Fili said.
“Good. The last few trying to get through didn’t,” Legolas said, either not noticing Fili’s tone or ignoring it. “The webs shouldn’t be too think until after about three or four days travel, depending on the spider’s speed of resurgence.”
“And is there any way for you to guess that?” Bilbo asked.
The elf shrugged, “Not really. If the patrols are doing their jobs where they’re supposed to be doing them, then the spiders shouldn’t be trying too hard to expand in our direction at the moment.”
“And you are sure of the schedules?” Balin sked.
“They have not changed in a decade. I see no reason they would now,” Legolas replied.
“A decade and these beasts of undefeated?” Dwalin drawled.
“I believe the current strategy is simply to keep them from elven territory, to drive them out, not to wholly defeat them,” Legolas said.
“Doesn’t seem to be working,” Gloin said.
“I never said it was,” Legolas replied. “Path curves here.”
“But it’s vanished!” Bilbo said.
“It’s here,” Estel said, tapping a boot on ground that echoed as stone. “It’s just buried.”
“If it’s the elven road, why aren’t you lot maintaining it?” Kili asked.
“I do not know,” Legolas replied. “A few of the guards have tried to work on it on their time off, but those bits of road lie closer to the strongholds than we shall be going if at all possible.”
“Mahal willing,” Balin said and the group fell into tense silence.
“That’s not a pit, that’s a ravine!” Fili said.
“It’s gotten bigger,” Estel said. “Greenleaf?”
“I’m not sure, give me a moment,” the elf said, heading up a tree.
“How long ago were you last on this path?” Thorin asked sternly.
“Less than two months,” Estel said. “It was half that size then. The question is, is it as long as it looks?”
“What?” Thorin asked.
“Surely some of you have noticed these woods try to addle your mind,” Estel replied. “Legolas! How does it look from up there?”
“I think we need someone with an axe or similar here!” Legolas replied.
The company looked at Dwalin, who was eyeing the tree with distaste.
“I’ll do it,” Fili said. “I’m a better climber than you anyway.” He and Dwalin exchanged smug and annoyed looks, respectively.
“Be careful,” Thorin ordered his older nephew as the axe was secured and Kili gave his brother a boost to the first branch.
The group on the ground listened to what they could barely hear.
“That one and that one.”
“So you mean to-?”
“Yes, light often disrupts this strangeness.”
“All right. Anyone too close to the tree back up!”
Loud cracking sounds filled the area until two large branches tumbled down, letting in a large shaft of light that shone over the canyon.
Suddenly said canyon looked a good deal smaller.
“Huh, you were right,” Fili commented as he dropped from the lowest branch.
“Then why not simply cut away all offending branches?” Dwalin asked the elf that dropped down beside Bilbo and Balin.
“They’d be back in a week. Something unnatural is affecting these woods,” Legolas said. “I’m sure I’ve said that a fair few times by now.”
“Greenleaf!” Estel scolded.
“Sorry,” Legolas said. “Just…seeing the forest like this…”
“No wonder you tried to take a vacation in Rivendell.”
“Oh, that’s not the only reason,” the elf told his friend quite seriously. “All right, now, how to cross what there is of that…”
A few hours and a makeshift rope-and-branch bridge later and they were over the ravine and making camp on the path on the other side.
“We’ll need one archer awake at all times,” Estel said.
“I’m not tired,” Legolas shrugged. “I won’t need sleep for a while yet.”
“I’d still say have at least a third of us stay awake,” Estel told the company. “Even if Greenleaf doesn’t need to sleep, the rest of us do.”
“Elves don’t eat meat, right?” Bombur asked, setting up his cooking supplies.
“I am fine. I’m really not that hungry either,” Legolas shrugged, leaning a tree.
“Give me a carrot,” Estel told Bombur. He chucked said carrot at Legolas’ head and it dropped into the elf’s hands on the rebound from his ear. “You’re eating that. How you can act more immature than me when I’m barely a hundredth your age I’ll never know.”
Legolas spat something in Elvish before hopping onto a low branch to apparently sulk.
“How long have you two known each other?” Bilbo asked.
“He taught me archery when I was young,” Estel said. “And Gandalf’s known him since he was young as well.”
“And you were raised in Rivendell?” Bilbo asked. “Before becoming a ranger?”
“Indeed, Master Hobbit,” Estel said as Bombur began making a very fast, very small amount of stew. “That is where my name, Estel, comes from. Others call me Strider, as my ranger name. And then there’s my birth name as well.”
“Sounds quite complicated, all those names,” Fili said.
“Well, Gandalf has many titles and names as well, so I comfort myself with the knowledge that he has to answer to more names than I do,” Estel chuckled.
“Dwalin, Bifur, Nori, Oin, and I will take the first watch,” Thorin decided after a moment. “Then Estel, Dori, Bofur, and Bombur. Kili, Fili, Gloin, Ori, and Bilbo shall be last before we travel on.”
“Good divisions, Master Oakenshield,” Estel replied. “Though I’d rather have food than rest, myself.”
“Good things come to those who wait,” Bombur scolded.
“Did you rest at all?” Bilbo asked the elf after he was awakened for the last watch shift.
“I relaxed in a tree and ate a carrot under duress from my friend,” Legolas shrugged. “That is more than sufficient rest.”
“Well, you’re the one who said we needed the archers ready, so don’t fall asleep on us,” Gloin said, keeping an eye on the breakfast pot Bombur had started before nodding off.
“I will not,” Legolas replied. “And we will all need to be on our guard. This far in is sure to be infested with the spiders.”
“There a best place to shoot them?” Kili asked, checking his arrows.
“In the head if you can, though center of the body works as well if the head is not an available target,” Legolas said. “If your blade’s short, stab the head or cut off a leg. Only long enough blades will get into the bodies.”
“Take it you’ve been with the patrols hunting those things?” Gloin asked.
“Almost every elf in these woods has,” Legolas replied.
“Almost?” Fili asked.
“Like every race, we have those of that that frankly should not be sent into battle,” Legolas said. “And frankly the spiders feel more like an invading army than a pest problem most days.”
“You said you didn’t agree with how they were being cleared, though,” Bilbo pointed out.
Legolas pursed his lips. “I am with the captain of the guard that we should deal with all the spiders, not just the ones inside our borders. That is all.”
Fili and Kili looked like they were torn between pressing the issue more and letting it go, but Bilbo could tell and sent them a look to keep them quiet. Whatever was bothering the elf, Bilbo had a sense it was a bit of a quarrel with his king, and Bilbo wouldn’t force the archer to reveal the full details of such a quarrel to people he barely knew.
Besides, the company of all people should understand loyalty to a king, including loyalty to a king you disagreed with.
“Here’s where we have to be very careful,” Legolas said. “This river is…odd. You fall asleep if you touch its waters.”
“Seems like an odd thing for a river all right,” Kili noted.
“Why is there a rope across?” Balin wondered.
“There’s a small boat. You pull yourself along the rope,” Aragorn said. “And the river’s not too wide so we should be able to see it…”
“Accursed fog…” Bilbo muttered.
“There’s always a boat,” Legolas said, tucking his hair into his collar. “So I can go find it.”
With that he swung onto the rope, hanging by his hands and knees, and began slowly making his way into the fog.
“Greenleaf, you see it?” Estel called.
“Yes. Just a little…yes!”
There was a splash.
“Legolas!” Estel snapped.
“I’m in the boat. Really Estel?”
“Oh thank goodness…” Estel muttered. “Overdramatic pain in the…worse than the twins, I swear…”
“I am not,” the elf contested, pulling the boat to shore. “As long as we keep the weight distribution even, we can probably have two or three go at once.”
Crossing was slow-going, with much calling back and forth between shores. Bilbo ended up in the last boat with Thorin and Bofur.
“Seems to have gone well so far,” Bofur ventured as he and Thorin pulled them across and Bilbo shifted about to keep the boat level as needed.
“Forgive me for not counting my gems before they’re unearthed,” Thorin replied. “The elf is being evasive about something.”
“I think he…well, he’s mad at his king over some things,” Bilbo said quietly, moving as the boat rocked when Thorin and Bofur started to go a bit fast. “And likely worried he’ll be in trouble for helping us.”
“Makes a good point,” Bofur said. “And at least this one has kept to his word for now. Besides, that man seems ready to keep him in line.”
“And here we all all,” Balin said, looking quite pleased as their boat landed.
“Remember when one of the twins fell in?” Estel asked Legolas.
“You were but a child, then,” the elf said.
“Yes, and it was the funniest vision of my young life,” Estel replied.
“Yes, it probably was,” the elf chuckled.
“Twins?” Bilbo asked.
“Lord Elrond’s sons,” Estel said. “I was placed under Elrond’s guardianship after my parents passed as they were good friends. I grew up with his sons and daughter and dear friends.”
“We did not see these sons and daughter in Rivendell,” Thorin noted suspiciously.
“As you did not see me. The twins and I were out helping their sister Arwen gather herbs for a few days,” Estel said. “She is a powerful healer.”
“I think we’ve found your spiders.”
The drwarves watched Legolas go very stiff as he strode forward to Fili and Dwalin. “Oh no.”
“What is it?” Thorin asked sharply before hissing in annoyance when he drew level with the other three.
The path ahead was surrounded in spider webs as far as they eye could see.