One

Searching

Leaves crunch under my feet as I trudge through the dark, dank halls of Mirkwood. My boots, along with any other article of clothing I possess, are worn and caked with mud, so much so that I have been mistaken for one of the Rangers of the North on more than one occasion. My dark green hood is pulled up over my head and a matching cloth works as a mask to cover my features. Some of the arrows in my quiver are broken, and my sword could use some sharpening, but for some odd reason my bow has managed to stay somewhat intact. The cold wind penetrates my clothing, chilling my fair skin. But I ignore the hardships. Because another matter preys upon my mind and forces me to carry on.

Thranduil's daughter is missing.

She has been for the past month.

And I must search for her. Alone. Because not a soul, not a being can see my face.

I have practically torn the wood apart looking for her. My search started the moment she disappeared, because if she is in pain, I am. If she cries, I cry. Our relationship, as it has been for as long as we have lived, is more intimate that anyone ever realized. Alas, it is most likely more intimate than we even realize.

I remember the days that she laughed, danced, sang, smiled. The memories bring joy to my heart and their hope lightens my load. But more recollections rampage my mind: those of the fateful day that changed both of us, and the rest of the kingdom, forever.

I can hear the shrieks of the Orcs.

I can smell the putrid reek of their freshly killed flesh.

And I can see the body of our queen lying amongst the litter of black carcasses.

The loss of Estelwen was indeed a grievous blow to us all, but none more so than to her daughter. For days Caladhiel despaired, cried, battled with the confusion that comes with this horrid thing called death. (As Elves, sometimes we forget that it is not only a curse for the mortal Men. The day we neglect it is the day it usually strikes…) But her strength, which she inherited from both her parents, prevailed, and for what seemed the long span of the ages, she lived on. Her smile returned. Her sweet voice floated in on the wind, rivaling the songs of the nightingales. Her nimble feet danced. Along with her happiness, her fire returned.

But then something else came to rival her strength and seize her gladness away.

A suitor came calling. Persistently. Though he was of noble blood (the son of one of Thranduil's most distinguished generals), Caladhiel shunned him. He did not fit into the puzzle of her heart. However, Sereg eventually swayed an indecisive Caladhiel over to his side, and for a time, it seemed as if she had truly made up her mind to wed him. The day before the wedding was the day she went missing.

I know nothing of the reactions to her disappearance, for I left before anyone else knew, but I have my suspicions. Thranduil and Sereg are both almost certainly convinced that she has been mysteriously captured and is in some great danger. But her brother, Legolas, most likely suspects that she is making a desperate attempt to escape the marriage.

I know for a fact that the latter is correct. No one knows Caladhiel like I do.

But how she could have survived for this long astounds me. She has limited skills with a bow and sword, so it must take a miracle for her to defend herself. (Mirkwood is not the kindest of places. Drakes, spiders, goblins prowl the wood, searching for prey. And they would all see the princess as a choice meal.) I have more faith in her hunting ability, mainly because deer and conies do not fight back. And a month is more than enough time for improvement in these areas if one is not killed first. Nevertheless, if she is alive now, she is a walking marvel.

I continue my search, taking great care to stay away from the search parties that roam the wood. Part of me is thankful that Legolas will not be among them, as he has apparently set out for Imladris. Even in seclusion, news like this can still reach my ears. While hiding from the others, I overhear conversations, watching intently from the shadows.

I feel as if I am always concealing myself. My name, Esgalion, even means "son of the hidden one." But the more I hide, the less combat I see. If my enemies cannot find me, they cannot fight me. And I am much better at hiding than at fighting. Do not be mistaken: I do have strength and fire in my heart. But lately cowardice has veiled me. And hiding is so much easier…

I am no warrior. However, I fight when I must. And I consider this one of these times.

The cold is inevitable. I decide to gather twigs and risk a fire, for I have seen no signs of other parties for a few days. Soon enough the orange effulgence shoots from the brush, giving me the light and warmth I crave. I retrieve the rabbit's meat that I have in my small pack and use one of my broken arrows for a spit. Now the meat roasts over the fire. When my fingers, whose tips stick out of my worn gloves, are warmed, they close around my water skin. The mask comes off; I sip the water quickly and scarf the rabbit down.

Because no one can see my face.

Now I sit by the fire, planning my next move. I know that there are many search parties scattered throughout all of Mirkwood (even a few in the southern region), but I deem that there are none searching outside of her leafy borders. I decide that that should be my destination. Caladhiel could be anywhere.

I retrace my steps to gain my bearings. Yesterday I know I came across the Road that separates Northern Mirkwood from Southern Mirkwood. If I find it again, I can follow it westwards out of the woods and continue in that direction towards the Misty Mountains. Of course, I will stay out of sight range and conceal myself in the brush while using the Road as a guide. I dare not risk being seen. I will then follow the Anduin southwards. Perhaps I shall cross it and enter Lothlórien. I know not my exact route. For I know not what I will face on the journey from here to Lothlórien.

I gaze up at the forest roof. Thought it blocks my eyes from the sun and sky, I can tell by the few hole in its canopy that the afternoon grows old. And with the afternoon comes night. At night, anywhere one can travel in Middle Earth suddenly transforms into an even more eerie and dangerous place. With the cover of blackness, Orcs, Wargs, goblins roam more freely, for their worst enemy, the Sun, has retired. In Mirkwood, the dangers are multiplied. Though we face few Orcs and next to no Wargs, drakes slink in the shadows. Spiders the size of wolves tiptoe in the night, searching for prey. Goblins prowl, their shrieks and growls resonating through nature's halls; the trees seem the shudder at their presence. There are even accounts of dragons lurking through the wood. Snakes. Wolves. And most gravely: the mysterious threats from Dol Guldur to the south. I dare not venture there. I hope to the Valar that Caladhiel has not either.

I wonder at how she even makes it through the night. Perhaps she sleeps in the tops of the trees as I do, if she can even sleep at all. Most threats are bereft of that gift. There is only one disadvantage of height: one eventually must come down. And if one is surrounded, that can be rather challenging. But the benefits highly outweigh the cons.

Suddenly feeling the urge to get back on the move, I stamp out the fire and scatter the ashes. A stream slinks by me, the water murmuring to me. I am unfamiliar with it; I do not trust it. Suddenly I am thankful that my water skin is full.

My eyes and ears search for any living sign of Caladhiel. Always I am met by disappointment. I must have misjudged just how well she knows the woods, for she has proved to be an excellent runner. The hunting trips she took with her father and brother must have been more than I though they were. Either that or the princess carries a map in her head. One of her favorite pastimes was to stroll through the wood with her father or to explore on her own, so she is most likely is more familiar with the roads, streams, and deer paths than I realize.

Suddenly a rustling in the leaves snatches me from my thoughts. Instinctively I look for thick bushes to crouch in or a tree with low limbs that will be easy to climb. To my sharp chagrin, I find none that give the cover I desire. Slowly, I pull an arrow from my quiver and fit it to my bow. When the crunch of footsteps resumes, the bow shoots upwards, the string taut. Fear courses through me; I fight to keep it from registering in my eyes. Somehow, I know I am failing. For this time, I cannot hide.