Arwen reined in her horse, looking doubtfully at the forest of Mirkwood, lying stretched before her. The days leading up to their arrival there had not been pleasant, and she hoped fervently that Gandalf would decide to leave the Dwarves and progress to Mordor now. He had said a few days ago that he would leave them soon.
A lot has happened in those few days, Arwen thought with a half-smile. After they made it out of the mountains and found Bilbo again, they had been attacked by Wargs, and snatched out of the jaws of death by eagles. Then they had stayed with Beorn, the – well, Arwen admitted to herself, it was hard to describe exactly what Beorn was. He was Beorn, when it came to that. He had lent the Dwarves and Bilbo ponies, and Arwen and Gandalf horses. Arwen hoped that she would not have to take her horse through Mirkwood. For that matter, she hoped that she would not have to take herself through Mirkwood. It was a great Elven kingdom, to be sure, but it didn’t look like the sort of place she really wanted to be.
She bit her lip when Gandalf said, “Well, here is Mirkwood, the greatest of the forests of the northern world.” That did not sound too promising.
Gandalf and the Dwarves proceeded to have another of their arguments – this one about sending Beorn’s ponies back – but Arwen paid attention to this one when Thorin demanded, “You don’t mention sending the horse back.”
“I don’t because I am not sending it,” Gandalf replied. Arwen expelled a quiet sigh of relief. They were going to leave the Dwarves and make their way to Mordor. The Dwarves were not so relieved – they set up a cry of protest. Gandalf cut in briskly. “We had this all out before. It is no use arguing. Arwen and I have, as I told you, some pressing business away south, and we are already late.” Arwen felt a flush of pleasure that Gandalf would include her with him in the number of people who had business with her cousin. “We will leave tomorrow morning,” he told her. “Make ready.”
The next morning dawned as clear as it could near Mirkwood. Arwen had repacked her bags carefully the night before and strapped them onto her horse. Gandalf was ready and mounted as she quickly said her farewells to the Dwarves, grabbed a bite of breakfast, and swung lightly onto her horse. She checked that her sword was securely tied to the saddle before she nodded. Gandalf clucked to his horse and nudged it onward – Arwen followed him.
Gandalf said nothing for the first leg of the day’s ride. Arwen thought he might be angry with her, or with himself for letting her come. She kept silent, not wanting to intrude on his thoughts, and directed her attention to their course and the length of their journey. It would be a long one. Mirkwood was about halfway between Rivendell and Mordor. It would be a very long ride. Arwen was already starting to hurt in certain places from sitting on a horse all day. Not wanting to seem like a spoiled baby, she said nothing of it.
When the sun was high overhead, Arwen assumed that they would stop for lunch. Gandalf, however, rode straight on, giving no sign at all that food was in order. Arwen swallowed and brought the subject up herself after an hour had passed since Arwen would normally eat lunch. “Ah…Gandalf…shouldn’t we stop and eat something?”
“No,” Gandalf replied. “We should conserve our food. We don’t have a lot.”
“Oh,” Arwen whispered, feeling stupid. Why hadn’t she realized that? She bit her tongue and said no more for the rest of the ride. Neither did Gandalf.
They made their camp, still silent, after it was dark. Arwen put up the tent while Gandalf made the meal. She had the sense that Gandalf didn’t want her wasting any more food than was necessary, and felt a bit sullen, too. She ate her nicely-cooked food without saying anything, knowing that she was sulking and unable to stop. When she was done, she crawled into the tent, wrapped herself in blankets, and fell asleep instantly.
The next morning, she got up resolved to be more cheerful than she had been the day before. She rolled up her blankets, being careful not to wake Gandalf, slipped out of the tent, and made breakfast. The smell of the food cooking made Arwen smile. She had only used a little of their supply and felt quite proud of herself for having done so.
Gandalf seemed to think so too; he ate his breakfast with relish and helped her take down the tent before he mounted up. Arwen felt sure enough of his mood to ask, “How long do you think it will be before we get there?”
Gandalf sighed. “A long time, Arwen,” he told her. “And then we need to find out if what I have heard is true.”
“About my cousin.” Arwen kept her voice steady, but her heart was beating hard. She still could barely believe that she had a cousin who was being raised in Mordor.
“Yes.” The wizard’s voice was heavy and sad. He turned in his saddle to face her. “Arwen, I do not know what we will face when we get there. I do not even know whether or not your cousin wants to be Sauron’s consort.” He gave a laugh that was halfway between a bark and a sob. “But I will say this.” He smiled ruefully at her. “I am grateful to have company.”
Arwen felt tears rise up in her eyes. He was glad that she was there. She swallowed them down and smiled back. “I’m grateful to be coming,” she replied.
They rode more easily after that, talking along the way. Arwen was glad that Gandalf said nothing about returning her to Lothlorien when they were near it, and repaid him by telling jokes and stories when he grew weary or seemed overly sad. The jokes, though, grew less in number as they approached Mordor. They rode down from Mirkwood towards the Ered Lithui, the mountain range that enclosed Mordor.
They kept silent and still all through their crossing of the Ered Lithui. Gandalf was unwilling to light any fire, no matter how small, for fear of alerting possible Orc-guards, so they ate their food cold and uncooked. Arwen threw up after her first bite of raw meat. Gandalf held her head, gave her a sip of water from the waterskin, and told her, “You’ll get used to it.” Staring at him in shock and outright doubt, Arwen held off on the meat for that night.
The next night, however, her stomach was aching, and there was nothing for it but to gulp and eat raw meat. She managed to eat a whole piece of the meat before diving for the waterskin. Gandalf patted her on the back. “You’re doing well,” he approved. Arwen, her face whitish-green, rolled her eyes at him, making the wizard laugh.
And so, with one thing and another, they came to the Land of Shadow.
“How are we going to get in there?” Arwen asked, staring up at the tower of Dol Guldur. It was black and seemed almost impenetrable. She shivered looking at it. Somewhere in there is the being that is pure evil, that started and lost a war. She looked at Gandalf. “Is there any way we can get in there?”
“I wouldn’t have brought you if I couldn’t get us both in,” Gandalf replied. He showed no signs of doing anything, however, but merely stayed hidden behind the boulder they crouched behind. He saw Arwen open her mouth to ask what that way was and held up his hand. “No questions. I do have a plan.”
Then he stood up and, in plain view of the Orc guards of Dol Guldur, sent up a shower of sparks from his staff. Arwen gasped in fright and reached out to yank him back down and out of sight, but he stepped nimbly away and sent up more sparks, yelling wordlessly as he did so. Arwen saw Orcs rush from the parapet and into the tower, shrieking in glee. “What have you done?” she hissed, almost in tears.
“Assured our entrance into Dol Guldur,” Gandalf said calmly.
“As corpses!” Arwen was really in tears now, crying in anger and fright. “Was there absolutely no other -“
“Hush!” Gandalf’s hand was suddenly flung up, his face turned towards the tower. A smile, of all things, crept over his face. “Arwen, draw your sword,” he said, barely moving his lips, and his hand fell to Glamdring’s hilt. He forestalled more panicky words from her with a withering glance. “Do as I say.” Her hands shaking as she gripped her blade, Arwen obeyed.
Two Orcs emerged from the tower, racing toward the upright figure of Gandalf. “Stay there,” Gandalf told her, “until I give the word.” He stared resolutely at the approaching Orcs, exultation on their ugly faces. “Not yet…not yet…” They were drawing close now, so close that Arwen could see the iron rings piercing their nostrils. She shuddered and held her sword tighter. “Now!” Gandalf cried, suddenly whipping Glamdring from its scabbard and swinging it at the nearest Orc. Arwen leaped up from behind the stone and thrust her sword into the other Orc’s side. He gasped in shock and fell, his eyes open, his hand still holding his own crude weapon. Arwen dropped her sword and stared, wide-eyed, at the Orc, the first creature she had killed and seen die. She felt shaky; her legs would not support her. She fell to her knees, unable to take her eyes off the dead Orc. Her hands were shaking – her whole body was shaking. Her stomach ached. The world was spinning before her eyes and going hazy and dull. The only solid thing in it was that dead Orc…
The next thing she knew, she was clutching Gandalf’s hand and throwing up onto the barren land. She took heaving breaths in between her periods of straight retching, clutching her aching stomach, her eyes smarting, feeling worse than she had ever felt in her whole life. After what seemed like the entirety of the Third Age, she had nothing left in her, and sat back, her eyes closed, trying to expel the shakiness from her body. Gandalf brought the waterskin over, and she took deep drinks from it, grateful for the water.
Finally she stood up, wavering a little on her feet, but feeling better. She wiped her sword, stained with black Orc blood, on the ground, and put it back in the sheath. “Thank you,” she whispered to Gandalf.
He took her hand and squeezed it. Grateful again for the comfort, Arwen smiled weakly up at him. He let go and said, “Sit down. I’ll strip the bodies.”
“What?” Arwen shook her head to clear it. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, I’ll take the armor off the Orcs. You can sit down and recover yourself more.”
The shaky feeling was back in her knees again. Arwen sat, taking deep breaths to calm herself, feeling even sicker at the thought of wearing something belonging to the creature she had just killed. “I can’t,” she whispered weakly.
“This is my plan, Arwen, and it was my plan even before I let you come. You can.” Gandalf turned to his Orc and, hauling the body behind the boulder, began to strip it of its armor.
When all was said and done, Arwen was clad in her Orc’s armor and helmet, his weapons strapped to her sides, her own blade hidden under a flap of the armor. She felt like a traitor to be wearing it, but she gritted her teeth and did as Gandalf asked. He had to teach her to walk like an Orc, and even then she moved with an innate Elvish grace. “And what if an Orc asks me a question?” she asked. “I don’t know a word of Black Speech!”
“I’ll say that your tongue was cut out when you disobeyed orders once,” Gandalf said easily. “Let’s go, before we waste any more time.”
Arwen followed Gandalf into the tower, feeling more ill at ease with every step she took, and wishing that she had never left Rivendell.