The gate before me is nothing more than a pair of trees, leaning together, hanging heavy with ivy and lichen, standing astride a hard-beaten path upon which only a few blackened leaves dance in the winter wind. Beyond is nothing but forest, but somehow, it seems as dark and threatening as any tunnel bored into the bowels of a mountain. I have been staring at the gate, and the path beyond, for hours; even Kestrel seems reluctant to cross that threshold. But duty must be answered. In a moment I shall step into the gloom of the Mirkwood and begin my crossing, to the Dale-lands beyond.
The coldest part of the winter, more bitter than I have ever experienced, lies behind me, but not so far that the ground is not still covered in snow nearly to my knees to either side of the path. I had called the Woodmen strong and hard, but now that I have borne the brunt of the icy winds they face with such poise, I am even more in awe of them. I had to spend much of the coldest part of winter in their halls, amongst their largest settlement, unable to bear the winds enough to join in many of the hunts and relegated to labors within the shelters. As in all other Woodmen settlements, I had had to prove my value to the tribe with sweat and determination to earn their trust. Perhaps more so at this one; their halls lurked below the very eaves of the dark forest, and while I know not whether danger was truly more at hand, you couldn't help but feel that it waited, always just behind you, watching you over your shoulder, pondering whether now was the best moment to take you in a muffled scream into a place where you would be forever forgotten. Trust seems hard to hold here.
Memories amongst these Woodmen go back farther than at other settlements, and there are more who can tell tales of the horse-lords, and how some few of them came to dwell amongst them, marry with them, and become part of the tribe, centuries ago. A few even knew the names of Eorl and Fram and Leód, or a few words of my language, passed down mother to son and father to daughter. I cannot say whether the larger part of the remaining Éothéod migrated together somewhere, or whether all of them scattered amongst these Woodmen tribes and were lost, as a handful of soil is lost when cast into the wind, though every grain finds a place. But once more, no tale of a lantern is known.
The chieftain of this settlement is a woman called Far-Scout, strong, fierce, wise, and pleasing to the eye. During the time I spent living amongst them, I had to force myself to keep my distance from her, because I could not keep my eye from finding her. I thought of how, back in the Westfold, I would watch the pretty girls washing clothes in the stream, from a distant perch atop a hill, but never approach or speak to them. There is no hilltop perch from which to catch the sunlight on the sheen of Far-Scout's dark hair, nor any blind where I can gaze on her without her keen eye finding me. She might smile, or frown, as the mood took her, but never did I feel like she paid me any more notice, either good or bad, before she moved on to whatever purpose always carried her feet on the next step and the next. I knew from the first that I was no more likely to stand beside her than I was to sing to one of the girls washing clothes at the stream, nor would I do anything more than steal what glances could be stolen; but even that filled me with shame. So I did the only thing I could; I kept my distance.
Even so, plunging into the forest path that crosses Mirkwood seems like a hard way to gain that distance, does it not? It is not the shame of my boyhood crush that drives me thus. It is simply this: from here, if the Éothéod went not south, they must have gone either east or west. The way west is over the Misty Mountains, the hardest road a horse-tribe might take; but the way east, through the Mirkwood, seemed no less daunting, for the tales of the dangers within it are enough to chill the blood. However, the scouts of the Woodmen know the path, and the safe ways to cross that forest, the streams that can be safely drunk (and those that cannot), the spots where a cold, cheerless, fireless camp can be safely made. As long as one brings one's own food, knows the ways, and stays on the path, it can be crossed safely; and indeed trading-waggons cross it several times a year. If the Éothéod dwelled here long, they may also have known these things, and this is the most likely way they may have migrated, seeking a new home beyond the woods. So I must travel there, to the cities of Dale and Esgaroth, for if I do not, I cannot tell the Thane that I carried my duty as far as it could be borne.
I have gathered enough food to last me to the other end of the Forest Path, and studied, over and over, the signs I must seek to safely make my passage. I have learned much of survival in the wild since I left the Mark, even more amongst the Woodmen, and my aim with the bow has improved. If this crossing can be done, I am as ready now as I can ever hope to be.
Just another moment, and I will enter the path. Just another few heartbeats, to muster my courage. A few more thoughts of the Mark, beautiful in the sunset, to lift my feet and set them on the next step. Visions of my family, watching me return a hero, lantern in hand, proud of me at last. Just one more moment.