“Are you sure this is the right direction?” Bilbo hissed with a worried glance back in the direction of the dwarves, who were growing restless.
“Gandalf said I should follow my nose, and that is exactly what I am doing,” Myrtle replied stubbornly, waddling along at her usual, utterly unhurried pace.
It was true, Gandalf had said that Myrtle could sniff out the connections between worlds, but they had been walking for hours. The dwarves were starting to doubt the wizard’s words (and as the wizard had claimed he would rejoin them later, there was no wizard present to renew those words), and frankly Bilbo wanted out of this dismal world as soon as possible. No offense to the dwarves of course, it had probably been much nicer before the wraiths came.
Speaking of which, Bilbo expected to encounter one around every corner, and the tense posture of the dwarves suggested they shared that fear. Their dæmons were spread out, alert and watchful for any sign of trouble. Thorin’s dæmon, who Bilbo still insisted on calling Minty, stuck close to Bilbo and Myrtle. Their bodyguard, Bilbo supposed, though Thorin kept as much distance as he safely could.
It was a little lonely, walking at the front of the pack, with only his dæmon and Thorin’s scornfully silent Minty for company. The others were too focused on the possibility of wraith attacks to be as jovial and friendly as they had been.
Myrtle stopped, and Bilbo nearly smacked himself in the forehead when he saw why. He must have been blind, not to see the gaping hole in the air until Myrtle stopped in front of it. It was obviously an open portal, which Gandalf had said was the first thing they should try looking for (“you do not have the right tools to open closed portals yet, after all”). On the other side, he saw tall trees with twisted, gnarled limbs, hung with terrifyingly large spiderwebs. He gulped.
“Perhaps another world is not such a good idea after all,” he muttered, gathering up Myrtle. This new world looked hardly better than their current one. They might have to run, which was not a strong area for Myrtle, considering that she was a badger.
“Where is my thank you, or perhaps a congratulations for finding this portal?” Myrtle griped. “You see, Gandalf was right.”
“So the rat is useful for something,” Minty purred.
“‘Rat?’” Myrtle practically shrieked. “I am a proud Shire Badger, and I will have you know-” Bilbo cut off his dæmon’s tirade with a hand over her mouth, though Myrtle did not go quietly until she had nipped him a few times.
Thorin watched the exchange silently, finally saying, “Well done,” but making no move to enter the portal, instead eyeing it uncertainly. He had never left his own world, Bilbo realized.
“Maybe you should try asking the compass if we should go in,” Bilbo suggested, quailing when Thorin looked at him sharply. “To get practice.”
“It’s not a bad idea,” Balin agreed. “Ori, lad, record what markings it lands on.”
With clear reluctance, Thorin took out the strange golden device and opened the lid. Guessing at the meanings of the symbols, he set the three movable arms on the globe, the man, and the hourglass, focusing his thoughts on the question, “Is this world safe?” The needle started moving immediately, too quickly for Bilbo to follow. It seemed to be no problem for Ori though, who had neatly sketched the symbols in the correct order, with notes about how many times a given symbol had been touched (Gandalf had implied this hinted at a different meaning), and held out his sketchbook for the group to inspect. Of the cluster of symbols, the only ones that made much sense to Bilbo were a cloud and a tree, because they were very clearly looking at a dark forest. No leaps of logic involved.
“Do you understand any of it?” Dwalin asked, scratching his head in confusion.
“Aside from the obvious, no,” Thorin replied, clearly frustrated. “This one though…” He pointed at one of the middle symbols. It looked kind of like an arrow to Bilbo’s eyes, though it was so tiny, it could have just been a twig.
“Wood Elves,” Bilbo murmured, barely aware he had spoken.
26 pairs of eyes turned to look at him.
“In such a dark place?” Ori asked, his dæmon burrowing deeper into his sweater.
“Perhaps ours is not the only world affected by the wraiths,” Balin observed sagely. “So, what are we going to do? Look for another portal?”
“I don’t smell another one anywhere near here,” Myrtle observed, a little testily. “We risk getting caught by wraiths if we wander around aimlessly, hoping for a nicer world.”
Thorin didn’t hesitate. “We go,” he said simply, and walked through the portal, Minty padding after him silently. Bilbo and Myrtle followed, and the rest of the company came after. None of them spoke as they entered the woods, the oppressive darkness lending the place a threatening air. Bilbo was already hoping their next world would be a nicer one. He’d never get to know his companions if they were always gloomy and quiet, and it would be a very lonesome journey that way. The dwarves all knew each other, but he only had Myrtle.
Myrtle, who was clearly scared out of her wits based on the way she was mercilessly clawing his arms. Bilbo was nervous, but he wasn’t frightened. That was unusual. “What is it?” he asked her, stroking her fur in a calming way.
“I-I don’t know,” she admitted breathlessly. Bilbo noticed the dwarves were all having similar conversations with their own dæmons. Even Minty, who had thus far been proud and aloof, looked thoroughly unsettled, her eyes darting in every direction. Not wraiths then, Bilbo decided. The dwarves seemed mystified by how their dæmons were reacting, and their world was allegedly crawling with wraiths.
Speaking of crawling… Bilbo glanced around. He saw no signs of any animals, other than the spider webs. He heard no signs either: the woods were utterly silent aside from the crunching of the dwarves boots over the dead leaves. There should have been animals. Birds, insects even. But there was nothing. Just a heavy silence.
At some point, the dwarves had clustered closer together, their weapons drawn, and Bilbo was pushed into the center of their formation. He certainly shared their apprehension. There were a few forests in the Shire, but not even the Old Forest was like this.
A twig cracked, startling the company. Someone had probably just stepped on it, but their nerves were already frayed. Someone started shouting, and before long, he was trapped in the middle of a band of bickering dwarves, their dæmons snarling and snapping.
Bilbo glanced back, but the portal they had entered through was already out of sight, and with all the dæmons riled, they had little chance of finding it again. Unpleasant as it was, they were stuck in this world, so they needed to make the best of it. That was when he noticed some of the branches moving, and realized that the shouting had drawn some kind of attention.
“Enough!” Bilbo tried to shout, but his voice couldn’t carry over the dwarves’. Thorin seemed to regain his senses though, and when he repeated Bilbo’s shout, it did carry.
“There’s something out there,” Minty growled, and that was when the giant spiders burst from the trees and Bilbo realized he was completely unarmed.
The safest course of action seemed to be hiding, so Bilbo and Myrtle found some sturdy tree roots to duck under. From there, he could watch the dwarves in action, and he soon realized that his mouth was hanging open. He had never seen anything like it before. Of course he hadn’t. There was no fighting in the Shire, except for the occasional drunken brawl, but that couldn’t be compared to this. The dwarves moved with ruthless efficiency, working in concert with each other and their dæmons to take out the spider’s limbs, before stabbing the heads.
“How frustrating it must have been, not being able to harm the wraiths,” Bilbo realized then. “They’re such skilled fighters.”
“Maybe they aren’t,” Myrtle replied with a shiver. “You’ve never seen real fighting before. Maybe this isn’t so impressive.”
“Myrtle, really,” Bilbo scolded. “They’re fighting creatures multiple times their size and winning.”
They were outnumbered though, and Bilbo knew it. They had been pairing up to fight the spiders, preferring not to take one on alone, but then another spider dropped between Thorin and Minty, and Dwalin and Daisy, isolating the king and his dæmon. Thorin was tiring, that much was clear from his heavy panting. But without a weapon, there was nothing Bilbo could do. Nothing he could do even if he had a weapon, for that matter.
The spider knocked Thorin to his knees, pinning Minty with a leg, and then suddenly, it shuddered to a stop, and fell. There was an arrow protruding from its head.
“Wood elves,” Bilbo barely had time to murmur, before the clearing was full of them, slaying the spiders with lethal grace. They moved too quickly for Bilbo to follow, but at least the spiders were dead, and they were safe.
Except that the elves were pointing their arrows at the dwarves now, and a hand was grabbing the back of his jacket, dragging him out from under the roots.
“What manner of creature are you?” the elf asked. She was tall, with vibrant red hair, and sharply pointed ears. Definitely an elf, Bilbo thought with some excitement. Her dæmon was some kind of hawk, though it had a rather pretty face.
Bilbo spared a look for the dwarves, who were trapped but hadn’t been shot yet before answering. Thorin seemed to be talking to one of the elves, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying. So at least no one was shouting yet. “I’m a hobbit,” he answered simply. “They’re dwarves.”
“How did you get here, hobbit?” Her tone was insistent, but not threatening.
“I walked,” Bilbo replied obtusely. ‘Don’t talk too much about other worlds,’ Gandalf had warned. Judging by the frustrated looks on the faces of the other Elves, the dwarves were being equally unhelpful.
The elf sighed. “I see. You will have to see our King,” she said, a little apologetically. “These are dark times, and visitors in our lands are rare.”
“Apparently these are dark times everywhere,” Myrtle muttered, and Bilbo clapped a hand over her mouth. The elf clearly heard it, judging by how her eyebrows went up, but she said nothing. She set Bilbo back on his feet, and he was herded back over to the dwarves.
The elves marched them through the woods, and while the dwarves were tense, Bilbo felt strangely relaxed. True, they were prisoners at the moment, but the elves had dispatched the spiders easily. They were safe with them, at least from the dangers of the wood. That was something.
They marched for another hour before reaching the palace of the King. They passed clusters of huts along the way, and the occasional elf peeked out, staring unblinkingly down at them. In all his life, Thorin had never felt small, but these elves were adept at inspiring that feeling.
Besides being freakishly tall, there was another strange thing about the elves. Their dæmons seemed to be able to travel farther away. Many of them were birds (the elf Thorin had spoken to had a squirrel), and at times their dæmons weren’t even in sight. It felt unnatural, and he strained to remember some of the tales his mother had told him. She had never mentioned this, though she had said that Elves were immortal. Possibly the two were connected.
Not that it mattered. Still, maybe wandering into this world was a good thing. They were looking for a lost Elven kingdom, and maybe Elves were the best ones to ask. He couldn’t say how he knew they weren’t in Gondolin already. It had always sounded like a place of magic and beauty, and while this wood might be magical, it was not beautiful.
“Stop musing,” Mingalaz muttered. “We’re almost there.”
And so they were. The Elvenking’s palace rose above the trees, hewn from the rock. It wasn’t exactly what Thorin had expected when Bilbo said, “Wood elves,” but far be it for him to denigrate building out of stone. Massive tree roots wound through the place, and that was a little bit more of the expected. But then the guards separated him from the others, the elf he had spoken to taking him to one side.
“Captain, take the others to the receiving room. I will take him to my father,” the apparent prince said, his squirrel dæmon perched lightly on his shoulder. “Captain” evidently referred to the red-haired she-elf who had found Bilbo, who saluted and ushered his company away. “This way,” the prince said to Thorin, who was suddenly completely unguarded.
“I guess we’re not really prisoners,” he murmured.
“For now,” Mingalaz replied cynically.
They followed the elf prince across a series of thin, winding paths, stopping finally in front of a rather impressive throne. It was positively encrusted with antlers, Thorin thought, wrinkling his nose. But then the King appeared, and his decorating sense was made clear: his dæmon was a truly massive elk. Very unlike the rest of his people, Thorin couldn’t help but observe, his hand straying to Mingalaz’s head. Not that she was a normal dæmon for a dwarf of the Line of Durin.
“A dwarf,” the King observed, his eyes widening a little in what passed for astonishment.
“You have seen one of his kind before, Ada?” the prince asked curiously, and the king shook his head.
“No, but my father did, before the Sundering,” the king observed thoughtfully. “You have come from another world.”
Thorin nudged Mingalaz to silence her cry of “the sundering?”
“There is no point in denying it,” Thorin admitted. “I am Thorin, son of Thrain. King Under the Mountain of Erebor. I do not know what our world is called, but the realm of the dwarves might be appropriate.”
The King gave him an appraising look before replying. “I am Thranduil, King of the Woodland Realm, and this is my son, Legolas. Some call our forest Mirkwood, but it was once called Greenwood the Great.”
The name was familiar somehow, but Thorin couldn’t place it. It matched what little they had gotten from the compass, anyway. “‘Some?’” Thorin asked. “Are there others aside from your people here?”
“There are Men, elusive and secretive, who live in the wood as well,” Thranduil confirmed. Not that Thorin knew what ‘Men’ were. “They are not my concern, so long as they do not harm my people, or the wood.” Thranduil gave him a long look. “Tell me, Thorin, son of Thrain, how and why have you come here? Your timing is rather ill-judged.”
Thorin shared a look with Mingalaz. There was clearly no point in lying, and refusing to talk would not get them out any faster, but how much to tell? “We found a portal in our world,” he said eventually, leaving out that they had been deliberately looking for it. “Strange beings have appeared in our world of late, and we were seeking the source.”
It was the elk that spoke next. “What sort of strange beings?”
“Shadows,” Mingalaz replied. It was only courteous for dæmons to address dæmons. “Dark creatures that drain your life.”
There was a flash of something, recognition maybe, in Thranduil’s eyes, but it was gone as quickly as it came. “Different from our pest problem, then,” he simply said. “Their source is not here, I’m afraid. We cannot help you.”
“As long as you don’t hinder us, we have no quarrel,” Thorin replied. “We will look for another portal and continue on.”
“Rest here for the night,” Thranduil said. “Many of my people are too young to remember dwarves, and I am sure you know little enough of Elves. Only, do not mention that you came from another world.”
“We will do that,” Thorin decided, shelving his suspicions about Thranduil’s stranger comments. The Elvenking was old. He probably could help them if he chose, but he wouldn’t. Something about his expression when the wraiths were mentioned told him that. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
Thranduil inclined his head graciously, and then Legolas was leading him back to the company. The younger elf waited until they were well out of earshot of the throne before speaking. “You really came from another world?”
“We believe so,” Thorin confirmed. “There was a shimmering hole in the air, and when we stepped through it, we were here.”
“Another world,” Legolas believed. “And the way there was so close all along.”
“Your own borders seem like a more pressing concern,” Thorin observed, thinking of the way the spiders had overwhelmed them. It had once been called Greenwood the Great, Thranduil had said. Mirkwood certainly did seem more fitting at the moment.
The prince’s mouth twisted in distaste. “That is certainly true.”
The receiving room the company had been brought to certainly wasn’t a prison cell. It was spacious and airy, various fruits placed in bowls all over the room. Kili he noted was chatted animatedly with the Elven captain, while other members of the company were scattered across the room, chatting with other guards, or with each other. Bilbo was with Kili and the captain, and everyone turned when Thorin entered the room.
“Oh, Uncle!” Kili exclaimed. “Captain Tauriel was just telling us about their spider problem.”
“You look a little too excited to be discussing such a serious issue,” Thorin observed with a raised eyebrow.
“The lad’s just excited to meet a woman who can beat him in a fight who’s not his mother,” Bofur chortled. There was a raucous round of laughter at Kili’s expense, except for the elves and Bilbo, who did not get the joke. Bilbo actually looked alarmed, so Thorin decided he might as well explain.
“Do you know what a hyena is, Master Baggins?” he asked, and the hobbit shook his head. “It’s a type of wild dog. The packs are controlled by the females, who exert dominance in all the ways normally given to males in the animal kingdom. My sister’s dæmon is a female hyena.”
Bilbo nodded, understanding dawning in his eyes. “Among hobbits, it’s rare for a dæmon to be the same gender as their person,” he observed.
“It’s the same with dwarves,” Balin confirmed.
“And for Elves,” Tauriel agreed. “Your mother must be remarkable,” she said to Kili, who simply blushed and said nothing.
“What do you think?” Thorin asked Mingalaz once the groups went back to socializing.
The mountain lion sighed. “I think you were right not to tell him everything. He clearly knows more than his people, but he also wasn’t about to share.” Mingalaz shook her head. “Though I don’t understand why he told us to keep our origins secret. Where else could we have come from?”
“By the way he said that the Men were not his concern, we could have come from beyond their borders,” Thorin murmured. “Which technically, we did. Master Baggins!” He called the hobbit over, and Bilbo came, tripping over himself in his haste. “Did you tell them anything?”
Bilbo shook his head. “No. Should I have?”
“No, you did well.”
“Let us hope the others did equally well,” Mingalaz muttered.