Date: TA 2941

Thorin: 195 years old

Lina: 192 years old

Lina swore under her breath as she peered through the scope at the encampment below. It spread out in all directions, haphazardly covering the earth. The inhabitants did not seem terribly worried about any attacks as the few guards posted were only half paying attention to their surroundings. She wrinkled her nose as the wind blew westward, the putrid smell from the black throng wafting over her.

"It's a wonder Thranduil hasn't come to see what the stench on his northern border is," Kira grumbled, sinking down behind a rock.

"Still no movement?"

"Nothing's moving on the border. My scouts have checked. There's no sign that any of the woodland elves have ventured this far north in a good long while," the dwarven commander answered. She took a swig of water from her skin. Between the stench and the torched land, the dwarves were having difficulty breathing and keeping the dust from coating the insides of their mouths.

Sometime back, the orc horde seemed to have realized someone was following them. Obviously they did not consider them enough of a threat yet to stand and fight, but they were making life damned near impossible. The only shelter the dwarves had were those that they brought themselves or rocky overhangs. Everything that could be burned was burned by the time the dwarven army reached it. The thick black smoke from the burning vegetation forced the dwarves to drop back even further for fear of being surprised by the enemy waiting in the smoke.

Now the army was refusing to move. It seemed as if the orcs were waiting for someone or something, and, in the meantime, they had spread out through the entire valley. With the way blocked, the dwarves had no choice but to wait. They could not edge around the army to the south for fear of entering the dark shadows of Mirkwood. Nor could they swing north and risk awakening any of the dragons that still dwelled there. To go back would take too much time, making the army late.

"Have those assassins of yours managed to find anything more?" Kira asked as the two began the trek back to their own people. The dwarves were camped only a few marching hours from the orcs, well within range to know when they moved, but far enough away to flee should the army turn on them.

"They haven't reported back yet."

Nes and Kes had gone out with the rest of the scouts to try to find a way around the massive orc army. They were the only ones who had not returned. Lina doubted anything bad had happened. Neither was likely to be captured alive, and she was certain the orcs would have made quite a show of any dwarves they killed.

"They will return when they find something useful to report," she assured her companion.

"The only thing I care about is finding a way around that army," Kira growled. "What are they waiting for? A sign from the Valar?"

"I doubt the Valar would touch that unwashed mess," Lina retorted. Whatever else those creatures were, they were not natural. Someone or something had purposely created the dark and twisted beings with clear malicious intent. Lina wanted to know who. After the War of Dwarves and Orcs, the orcs and goblins had been nearly wiped out. Yet here were orcs in numbers far greater than those Azog fielded at Azanulbizar.

They were halfway to the camp when the twins finally appeared. Streaked with soot and dirt, they were barely recognizable.

"Reporting in, Lady Firehammer," Kes announced, sketching a salute.

"Anything to be acted on now?" Kira asked, looking almost hopeful.

"Not exactly," Nes answered. "There is no way to slip a force the size of ours around the horde without drawing attention. For the time being, we are stuck. We do, however, have some news that may or may not be of interest to you."

Lina glanced over at her assassins as they kept pace with the dwarven commanders. Despite being absolutely filthy, they showed no signs of weariness. Nes was eying her commander expectantly.

"It seems the news is of more interest to you than to me," Kira sighed.

The linebreaker did not say anything, but looked to Nes for the news.

"We did find an old Elven road to get us safely into Mirkwood. We hoped it would loop around and bring us out somewhere near the Mountain. If that were the case, we would have been able to safely guide the army through the forest," Nes said.

"Unfortunately," Kes chimed in, "that wasn't the case."

"Of course not," Kira muttered.

"So what did you find?" Lina asked.

"King Thranduil's palace, presumably," Kes answered.

"Neither of us really wanted to try sneaking into the Elven palace. We're good, but I doubt either of us is that good. What caught our attention, was the sheer amount of activity taking place around the palace," his sister explained.

"He does have an orc army sitting on his northern border," Lina reasoned. "Surely that would account for what you witnessed."

"We considered that, but then they brought in a wounded Elf from the woods. None of the orcs have been so foolish as to invade Mirkwood," Nes continued, "Even they are afraid of what lives in the shadows."

Lina and Kira listened with interest as the twins described what they witnessed. Shortly after finding the palace, an Elvish scout arrived, carrying his partner. The Elves were injured. The wounds were not serious as far as the dwarves could tell, but one had been knocked from the treetops, hurting his leg in the fall. The spiders, which the Elves had thought driven back, were making a resurgence. The encroachment on Elven territory was slow, but, suddenly, someone or something was disturbing the spiders. Groups of Elven revelers were being attacked by the spiders. The captain of the guard ordered that all Elves wishing to brave the forests for their midnight celebrations were not to stray far from the palace. The forest was once again becoming too dangerous.

"That explains why he hasn't placed any guards on his northern border. The forests to the south are keeping him sufficiently distracted," Kira mused. "But no way around the orcs?"

"Not with so large an army. Thranduil may have missed the army camped just beyond his borders, but he will not miss a dwarven army marching through his kingdom," Nes pointed out.

"We will simply have to wait," Lina said softly. A silent prayer left her heart that she would make it to Erebor in time.