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Shades and Shadows

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Otho had liked Rivendell, but was glad to be on the road again, which was something he never expected to think about himself when it came to traveling. The elves were courteous and kind, and once Herugar and Sigismund managed to get the kitchens straightened out (by working in tandem with Cook), the food was delicious as well. Rivendell was just...different. Singing at odd hours, the buildings always gently illuminated by the sun or moon, and you never actually knew where you would encounter the elves (or Estel, but he was a young Man child, and could be excused from such strangeness). In the time they were there, it was not uncommon for the hobbits to see elves conversing in the hobbits' rooms on their balconies about the position of the constellations.

All the hobbits wanted to do was go to bed.

And the less said about the Hall of Fire, the better. They had all (even Gandalf!) sworn to keep their antics at those gatherings to themselves.

Needless to say, there was something about feeling different types of land beneath your feet, seeing new sights and camping under the stars. For the most part, they were all having an excellent time, the occasional pangs of homesickness aside. It helped that all the hobbits in the group had grown up together and played together, helping form solid bonds of friendship, and that Gandalf had been known to them since they were tweens. So usually, nothing really caused them any distress.

Usually.

Except when they woke up to a bear looming over their heads.

Lobelia was still mad about it after they had parted Beorn's company days later. While she kept her temper and her manners were immaculate while they were under his roof, she let loose as soon as they were out of earshot. Used to it by now, Otho and the other hobbits didn't say a word.

Except for Bilbo, who didn't seem to have much of a self-preservation instinct anymore.

"A skinchanger! Of all things!"

"Really, Lobelia," Bilbo said soothingly, "It's nothing to worry about-"

"Are you serious?!" His cousin shrieked, ignoring the winces of her companions, "He called me a bunny--"

"He called all of us bunnies," Jessamine "Jessie" Boffin pointed out, "I hardly think-"

Her mouth clicked shut as Lobelia's glare shifted towards her face and she spurred her pony up beside Gandalf. Herugar Bolger joined his wife, Adalgrim "Addy" Took not far behind. Only Sigismund Took, Bilbo, and her husband Otho were riding with Lobelia now.

"Not," Lobelia muttered, "Helping."

"I promise he didn't have any intentions of eating us," Bilbo tried next.

Otho wasn't saying anything. He knew better than to try to reason with Loobie when she was in this kind of mood. The best thing to do was to say silent and exude support. Even if his spouse was being ridiculous. Granted, Beorn was intimidating, and very, very tall, and turned into a bear, for gracious' sakes--

--okay, she might have had a point.

But Beorn was very kind underneath that gruff exterior. He was generous with his food (and considering they were hobbits, that said a lot), and the bees and the animals (that understood Common! How strange) were very friendly. Sigs had made particular friends with a couple of the hives and a few of the worker bees had trailed sadly after them for a time before turning back to Beorn's house.

"If you're that bothered over it, Loobie," he interrupted Bilbo's further assurances, knowing that Lobelia would only stew the longer this carried on, and wanting to get past it already. "He's like Farmer Maggot."

Bilbo choked. His wife's eyes widened. Sigismund only coughed.

"They're very similar in temperament," he continued, enjoying their speechlessness, "And we've had peaceful dealings with Farmer Maggot for decades, you know. So when we see Beorn again, if he calls you bunny, just call him 'maggot' in your head."

"That," Lobelia said, voice flat but eyes twinkling, "Is completely nonsensical."

Bilbo was bent over his saddle, trying not to fall off from laughing so hard. Sigismund was patting Bilbo's back, but not faring much better. They had moved under the cover of Mirkwood's trees, and Otho was trying to ignore the clinging gloom that surrounded them. He'd feel much better once their elven escort arrived. And wasn't that just the thing? Elves. He'd never in his life thought he'd see them.

Well, his cousin was Bilbo Baggins. Perhaps he should have known better, what with who his mother was.

Otho only returned, voice as flat as hers, "I'm nonsensical? We just came from a house with animals that walked on two legs. That understood speech. And bees the size of our heads."

"I liked those bees," Sigismund's voice was glum. Lobelia had her head in her hands, her pony following after the others automatically. Otho was very proud of how her horsemanship had improved by leaps and bounds over the course of their travels. Well, everyone's, really.

"We know, Sigs," Bilbo had mostly recovered from his laughing fit, wiping tears from his eyes, "We know. Maybe we can ask him about you transplanting a hive one day."

Sigismund's face brightened, "I'd have the best honey in the Shire! Wouldn't that be something?"

"That's one word for it," Lobelia returned, shifting uneasily as she examined the forest around them, "Gandalf?"

"Yes?" The wizard called back.

"How soon till we meet that escort? I don't like the looks of this forest. There's something..." her voice trailed off and she frowned.

Gandalf dropped his horse back beside them and the riders merged together again, "Ah. I rather thought you all would notice."

"If you mean the sickness hanging about in the air like when blights have rolled through the Shire over the years, then yes, of course," Jessamine's voice was tart, "The trees haven't been properly taken care of in years--even decades?--there are far too many bugs and fungi to support any kind of wildlife here, and something is just. Odd."

Lobelia nodded and the other hobbits indicated their agreement. Bilbo only looked sad and unsurprised, which puzzled Otho until he remembered his cousin had traveled through these woods twice before.

The wizard nodded, voice thoughtful, "Well, this is Mirkwood. It was called the Greenwood, once. One of my cousins, Radagast, has made his dwelling farther in Mirkwood to the south. He aided us in the Battle of Five Armies, but has not been seen since. It may be some time before he can be pried from his home and his lands once again."

"Once?" Jessie asked, eyes narrowed.

"It's been a long time since so many of you Little Folk have made your way through our realm. We are sad that our forest is now thus, but long have shadows ruled in the keep to the south and it has only been just these months past that Mithrandir and the White Council have thrown the Necromancer out of these lands."

Lobelia barely stifled a shriek and the other hobbits startled badly as four elves moved from out of the trees.

One of them bowed to the group before continuing speaking, "Now that that evil is gone, we hope the land will restore itself to its former glory, but it may be years upon years before it is so. Welcome, Mithrandir, Bilbo Baggins. Welcome, companions, to Mirkwood."

Really, Otho thought to himself, What was it with elves appearing out of nowhere all the time?

---

The hobbits' moods did not improve the farther into the forest they went. Even though it was the middle of the day, the forest grew darker somehow, looking like late afternoon verging to evening. It put all of the hobbits on edge and they were reluctant to get off their ponies. Something about the general miasma in the air made them all wary of exposing their feet to the earth. Bilbo admitted that he had walked through Mirkwood before, but at his friends' shocked looks shrugged and said that after everything he had been through, Mirkwood was the least strange of them all.

Their escort was seemingly unaffected, but Otho hadn't known many elves and already he could tell that they were quite different from the ones they had encountered in Rivendell. One of the elves, Tuor, was talking to Gandalf farther ahead, and Eilian and Indis ranged out on either side of the party, keeping to themselves. The last one to emerge from the trees, Míriel, was speaking with Bilbo, updating them on goings-on since he had last passed through the forest. Otho and the others eavesdropped shamelessly.

"-change has come from Dale and the Lonely Mountain," she was saying, "Already trade agreements are being formed between all of our peoples, and surveying teams have moved to assess Dale and its surrounding areas, while providing supplies to Lake Town for the next few months. With the gold they had received after the Battle, they should be quite well-supplied before winter arrives."

"One can only hope," Bilbo's voice was grim, "I remember that Master as well as you do, my friend, and I hope that with Smaug dead the gold no longer holds such a fascination for him."

Otho shrugged inwardly. Hobbits had less of a need for money and more for good land and companionship. It was the living earth that fascinated them, not the rock underneath it. Currency did move through the Shire, but it was a continuing source of puzzlement for the Hobbits at how so many Men seemed to covet it. Not that that wasn't to say there weren't greedy hobbits, just that Men took it to new extremes they didn't think possible.

Míriel had responded while Otho's thoughts were elsewhere, "Well, they have received the gold, and it is their choice with what to do with it now. And," her voice dropped, eyes darting to Gandalf, "There is even more pressing news. A wizard has been said to come from the East. A woman with a staff and bright green eyes, in blue robes."

"What?" Bilbo's surprise reflected everyone else listening, "How is that possible? Gandalf said he didn't know what became of the blue wizards, and now one of them is here?"

Míriel shook her head, "Not in Mirkwood, or at least, not yet. She had been to Dale and is in Erebor now. But with what we have heard, and if it's the same wizard who moved amongst us a thousand years past..." she shrugged helplessly, "Who knows what will happen when she and our king meet again?"

"I'm more concerned about this wizard and Gandalf seeing each other," Otho retorted, "I know if I hadn't seen my cousin in a thousand years there'd be a reckoning for sure."

"I'm even more concerned about the 'thousand years' part," Adalgrim chimed in, "I thought only you elves were the ones that lived forever."

The elf shook her head, "Wizards are--a law unto themselves. As I'm sure you know."

"We know," the hobbits responded in unison, then laughed.

"WHAT?" Gandalf's shout reverberated throughout the group and into the trees. Everyone winced.

"Well, so much for a happy family reunion?" Adalgrim said weakly.

Gandalf turned back to look at them all, face thunderous, "I had planned," his voice an angry rumble, "To introduce you to Thranduil before moving through the rest of Mirkwood. Those plans have changed."

The shadows were growing over their heads, or maybe it was Gandalf looming taller than usual.The trees seemed to bend outward around him and his staff, like a convex lens.

None of them spoke.

"We move through Mirkwood as quickly as possible. It seems that one of my cousins as returned here to the West."

"Okay," Sigs squeaked. Gandalf nodded sharply and moved his horse into a canter. The hobbits urged their mounts after them, and the elves moved to follow in the branches.

Otho and Lobelia exchanged quick looks before following. What was waiting for them when they emerged from the other side?