The trees of Mirkwood could sometimes be so close together that no light could penetrate the canopy, but they could also be so far apart that it felt as though one was in a field. It was in one such clearing, called 'Rhosgobel', surrounded by trees thousands of years old, that a half-elf lived. Airelotwen, daughter of the dwarf Tolman Sandhelm and the elf Ascacariel, was a maid for the resident wizard of the forest.
Radagast the Brown had provided shelter, nurture and a home for Airelotwen when both of her parents were killed. In return she cooked and cleaned for him as his mind was so scattered that he often forgot to do it himself. The protection that a wizard could provide for a half-dwarf half-elf was invaluable. No taller than a ten year old child she could not wield a bow effectively. With the body structure of an elf she could not wield her father's axe. With no other family beyond her deceased parents, and with them having turned their backs on their own people, Airelotwen was truly alone in the world. It was truly a blessing that Radagast had been kind enough to look after her.
Often when Airelotwen arrived at the house of the wizard he was away. He had many animal friends and put their needs before his, so she wasn't surprised when she found the wooden hut empty this particular morning. What was surprising was how strange the woodland felt this morning. Airelotwen wasn't as connected to the forest as pure-blood elves, but she could still tell when something was wrong. She hoped that wherever Radagast was, he was fixing the problem.
As Airelotwen cleaned the hut she was not entirely alone. A family of mice watched from a hole in the floor and a family of hedgehogs watched from the table. There was a hedgehog missing but when Airelotwen inquired after Sebastian, all she got in response was grunts and shnuffles.
It was midmorning when Radagast returned. The usually tranquil wizard was quite clearly upset as he threw open the door and slammed it shut behind him. Clutched to his chest, barely distinguishable amongst the brown clothes he wore, was Sebastian. He didn't look well.
Airelotwen pushed her cleaning equipment to the side and hurried to the table when Radagast set Sebastian down. "Give him some room!" Radagast commanded of the other hedgehogs who were gathering around their friend.
Sebastian writhed on the table, looking grey and in pain. He curled up into a tight ball and refused to drink a blue-grey liquid that Radagast presented to him. Smoke from Radagast's pipes also failed to relieve the creature.
"Radagast, what's the matter with him?"
If Radagast heard Airelotwen he gave no inclination of it. Instead he scooped the poor creature up and cradled him close. "I don't understand why this isn't working!" Radagast hurried to the other side of the room, dropping into a chair.
"Is it witchcraft?"
"No, no!" Radagast shook his head, then stopped dead as if he had been hit. "But it is. A very dark and very powerful witchcraft."
Airelotwen opened her mouth to ask what could do such a thing, but she was cut off when a large shadow was cast across the room. A large, eight-legged shadow. It was quickly joined by another and another and another. With wide eyes Airelotwen hurried to the wizard's side. The mice followed hot on her heels, diving under the hem of her dress and taking shelter around her ankles.
"Radagast, do something!" Airelotwen hissed as the spiders began to make their way onto the roof. The wood and straw wouldn't stand long against the weight of an overgrown arachnid.
Radagast clenched his eyes and began to speak in his tongue. His words were impossible to make out, sounding only like a low rumble in his chest. Two things suddenly happened at one; black smoke poured from Sebastian's mouth and the spiders turned tail and fled. Sebastian woke with a start and a squeak as the mice slowly crept back out into the open.
"What were they?" Airelotwen asked as Sebastian jumped onto the floor and ran towards the table where his family waited.
"Not of this good earth." Radagast pulled himself to his feet with the help of his gnarled wooden staff. He cautiously made his way to the door and peeked out into the wood. "Whatever they were they are gone." The wizard pulled the door open and stepped outside.
Airelotwen followed close behind, unwilling to be left behind in case the arachnids returned. "They had to have come from somewhere, but where?"
Radagast stared into the trees where the spiders had vanished. "Dol Guldur." He stated decisively. "It has to be. Come on!" Radagast hurries forwards through the trees, not waiting to check that he's being followed.
"What do you mean 'come on'?" Airelotwen squeaked indignantly. "What makes you think that I want to follow those things?"
"Excellent idea!" Radagast called over his shoulder without stopping. "You wait here in case they return whilst I'm gone."
Airelotwen glanced between the wizard and the flimsy wooden hut before hurrying after the one which might provide a little more protection. "I thought Dol Guldur was empty after King Oropher abandoned it?"
Almost everything that Airelotwen knew about the history of Mirkwood and the history of the elves had been taught to her by Radagast. Unless he had been mistaken, Dol Guldur had been empty since the Downfall of Númenor.
"King Oropher didn't abandon Dol Guldur." Radagast explained. "He abandoned Amon Lanc, the hill underneath it. Someone else built the fortress and let it fall into repair."
"That's not what you told me!"
"I thought it best not to worry you." Radagast let out a shrill whistle and a sleigh pulled by a dozen brown rhosgobel rabbits came into view. Radagast jumped onto the back and Airelotwen took a seat in front of him.
"So what did build it?" Airelotwen called over whistling wind as the sleigh shot forwards.
"Something terrible and powerful." It's the best answer that Radagast gives and Airelotwen wondered if maybe he didn't actually know.
It took no more than half an hour to reach the abandoned fortress. It is not a structure that Airelotwen had ever seen before, nor did she wish to again. "Looks inviting." Airelotwen said uneasily, arms wrapped around a wood strut of the sleigh to keep from falling off. Whatever dwelled within the looming dark mass of crumbling stone was incredibly powerful and Airelotwen had every right to be afraid of it.
"Wait here." Radagast instructed as he stepped from the sleigh and began to make his way towards an unstable looking stone bridge that stretched out across a seemingly bottom-less trench.
"No need to tell me twice." Airelotwen muttered to herself. She wanted to turn her back on the fortress but was afraid that something foul might sneak up on her if she did. Instead Airelotwen carefully turned the sleigh around and settled down to wait for the wizard.
Radagast wasn't a very long time but he was long enough that Airelotwen had managed to link several feet of daisies and dandelions together to create a colourful white and yellow chain.
"Go! Go go go!" Radagast's sudden shouts startled birds from the nearby tree tops and the rabbits took off so suddenly that Airelotwen nearly tumbled from the sleigh.
The rabbits were nearly at full speed by the time Radagast caught up with the sleigh, jumping onto the platform as a dark black cloud loomed behind him.
"Are those bats?!" Airelotwen cried in horror. The bats that were pursuing them were huge creatures with bodies bigger than Radagast's head and wings half the length of her body!
"They're the least of our worries!" Radagast shouted as the sleigh sped through the forest.
The bats soon gave up the chase but Radagast showed no sign of slowing down. "Radagast, where are we going?"
"Far, far away! Over the Misty Mountains!"
Airelotwen was confused. Never, not once in the seventy years that she had known the wizard, had Radagast run away from something. If he was running now then there was something terribly wrong.
The journey to the other side of the mountains took several days and it wasn't until nightfall on the first day that both Radagast and Airelotwen realised they had no food, no blankets and no spare clothes. They were forced to sleep under the stars and eat whatever food they could find on the trail before pushing on. Thankfully the rabbits were fairly robust and had no trouble keeping up speed through the mountains. It took a further three days to reach wherever it was Radagast wanted to be.
Airelotwen had never been this side of the mountains before and she was well and truly lost by the time that they burst into another woodland. The rabbits navigated the closely packed trees with ease but Airelotwen had to close her eyes. They were getting far too many near misses for her liking. Unfortunately, because she had closed her eyes, she shrieked something terrible when the ground suddenly dropped from underneath her and the sleigh flew through the air. When it returned to the ground it landed with such force that Airelotwen rolled off the platform and onto the grass.
With a groan she opened her eyes to find that thirteen dwarves, an old man and something shorter than her with bare feet had various weapons trained on her.