Stories of Arda Home Page
About Us News Resources Login Become a member Help Search

We Were Young Once ~ III  by Conquistadora

Book III ~ ARAN

"The King"

Prologue




The force of the summer sun was weakening as the first chill of autumn entered the world again, the seventh time since the armies of the Alliance had first laid siege to the Dark Tower.  The grisly plain had quieted a great deal now that the battle had ceased, and a pall of exhaustion had fallen over all the ruined land of Mordor.  Victory was almost more bitter than sweet.  The strength of the West was sapped, even if not quite bled of its last efforts.  The demolition of the Tower itself had begun, a weary task, yet a point of grim satisfaction for the scarred victors.


The sad remnant of Eryn Galen largely held their silence as they gathered their camp and secured their last wounded.  Commander Dorthaer maintained an efficient order beneath the immediate command of the Lords Luinlas and Linhir.  A slight wind stirred up the dust underfoot, dust that had grown darker in the last years after receiving so much bloodshed.  Sauron had fallen, but not before clawing out his own bitter victories, and the wounds the Dark Lord had left in his wake would be slow if not impossible to heal.  There would be no more such alliances, Dorthaer suspected.  This would be the last.  The Last Alliance.


Both Gil-galad and Elendil had been cut down before the end, beheading the core of the allied command.  Elrond had filled the breach as well as he might, but without a blood heir to Gil-galad’s throne the high kingdom of the Elves was all but disbanded already.  The strain of the last age had uprooted and destroyed too much.  The younger realms of Men had passed to Elendil’s son who seemed able enough to hold them.  They would no doubt recover their losses more easily, as all mortal kind could, but the age of the Elves seemed to have largely come to an end.


For all his discipline, Dorthaer allowed himself a heavy sigh, burdened with a weariness like he had never known.  The war had sickened him deeply, and after seven years he had almost forgotten what it was to live without the taste of ash and the smell of blood.  He could scarcely recall the touch of his wife, the laughter of his daughter.  There had only been the screech of steel upon iron, the groans of the dying, and the silent tears of those who remained to face the next miserable day.  His wounds had healed, but the ragged scars remained to remind him of his trials here.  It seemed the very world in which they lived had been shattered, and although they had begun to reconstruct it, several key pieces remained forever lost.


Still, Dorthaer endeavored to remind himself, by some grace they had been spared the worst, and their costly victory was far from meaningless.  Once they could remove themselves from that hideous place they could be reunited with their loved ones and mourn their losses in peace.  It was not his place to despair.  He could not allow it.  Of his once impressive command of three thousand elite, only one hundred and twelve remained who were in any way fit for service.  The king had withdrawn most of them in the last years to function as little more than his personal guard, unwilling to lose the last of them unless at the last need.  The king had already lost too much.


That was another concern.  After the initial shock, Thranduil had seemed to grow into his new position with characteristic poise, but his old fire now burned cold.  He had become almost completely withdrawn.  It was not Dorthaer’s place to question him, but what he had heard was not encouraging.  The king apparently refused to speak of what had passed, attending his duties with an impassive efficiency which belied the fact that he had obviously closed his own emotional wounds prematurely.  He had become as far removed from his former self as night from day, reflecting the sting of tragedy and disgrace they all felt even after seven years.


“Commander Dorthaer.”


“Lord Luinlas,” he replied, turning to face him in proper form.


“Lord Elrond has granted us leave to depart,” Luinlas informed him.  “Will the army be ready to march within the hour?”


“Yes, my lord.”


Now Luinlas smiled, a weary but sincere expression.  “I commend you.  Lord Galadhmir has gone to fetch the king.”


 



They had buried him beneath the scanty shade of a gnarled tree, his sword thrust into the earth at his head.  There had been neither the time nor the resources to spend upon fitting memorials, even for fallen kings.  There were few enough growing things in that dead land, yet not all were evil at heart.  This particular tree had already dropped several dry thorns in deference to the remains entrusted to its roots, and each spring it attempted to unfurl a few healthy leaves.  These had begun to fall now, littering the ground like barren tears.


Thranduil shed none of his own, crouched there in the dust over his father’s grave.  After seven years, there were no more tears.  He had learned to bear his own sorrow, suppressing it into no more than a dull ache of unspoken emptiness.


He had entered Mordor a prince, a son, a follower.  He must leave it a king, a father to thousands.  The role still sat heavily upon him, as he supposed it always would, but it was the necessary loneliness that he wondered if he could long endure.  They all looked to him as once they had looked to his father.  He could not deny that he was blessed to be still surrounded by his dearest friends even after that dreadful war, yet none of them could truly bridge the chasm of responsibility which isolated him now.


It should not feel so foreign to him.  He had usurped his father’s authority on more than one occasion, and with hardly a qualm.  Perhaps it was because he had felt that if his father had truly seen fit to silence him, he would have done so.  Now there was no one to try himself against, and a single lapse of judgment or accident of fate had been enough to earn his predecessor a dusty grave in Mordor with the greater part of his army.


It was a grim thought, but Thranduil had hardened himself to it.  It was strange to think of their royal succession in motion like those of the mortal realms.  He would have wished it to remain fixed, secure and immovable, for it was in their nature to desire permanence.  He should have learned by now that if such security could not endure even in the Blessed Realm, it could never hope to stand in Middle-earth.


At last Thranduil hung his small twisted wreath of thorns on the hilt of Oropher’s sword and pulled himself to his feet.


Grief welled up in him again as he contemplated leaving forever that graveside which had become so familiar.  He was not unaware of Galadhmir approaching behind him, and the other chose that moment to put a hand on his shoulder.  Thranduil instinctively wanted to shy away from the familiar embrace, but his composure was already crumbling.  Galadhmir seemed to know his thought, and held him firmly.


“It happens so suddenly,” the other said, his voice still gentle though heavy with experience.  “Even now it seems as though he has gone off again on another of his journeys, and that any day he might return.”


There would be no waiting for him now, Thranduil knew.  “Galadh,” he said, suppressing a tremor, “how do you endure this?”


“With patience,” was his answer, “and no small measure of trust.  The deepest grief will pass once you learn to accept it.  Take what lessons you can from it all, and then have done.”


“But this should not have been!” Thranduil insisted heatedly.  “How am I to accept it?”


“You must,” Galadhmir said firmly.  “You must accept it because it is, and neither you nor I am the master of what should and should not be.  To go on questioning it will drive you mad.”


“But Celebrin . . .”


“Celebrin was irreplaceable to me, but it is not often our place to know why the young die and kings fall.  We must simply make what we can of our own lives.  King Thranduil cannot go on living in the shadow of Oropher.”


Thranduil had nothing to say to that.  Galadhmir was right, but the truth was harsh.  He wished he and his father could have discussed this.  They should have.  He grit his teeth in adamant refusal to weep any more.  If only for a moment to truly say goodbye!  He needed to hear it, a last encouragement upon which to build the rest of his life.  What would he have said?  Would his father have deemed him competent to rule, or would he, too, have resented this tragic turn?


Farewell at last, Thranduil.  I trust you can keep the household from falling apart in my absence.


The memory of Lindon rushed back to him unbidden, and so vividly that it made him catch his breath. 


You know how I dislike to leave you here.  There is no one I would rather have riding beside me.  But, on the other hand, there is no other I would rather leave with the charge I give you now.


The grave remained silent, yet Thranduil felt he had his answer.  It was bittersweet and made leaving no easier, but at least he could feel that he left with a purpose despite the aspersions cast upon them by the rest of Elvendom.  A single tear did escape him, but he swallowed the rest, setting his jaw just as he had three thousand years before.


“Come, my lord,” Galadhmir said, squeezing his shoulder before letting him go.  “Your army awaits you.”




ARAN

Chapter 1 ~ A New Age




The morning had dawned over Galadhremmen Lasgalen but clouds shrouded the skies, admitting only the occasional glow of sun into the depth of the wood. It was perhaps an accurate reflection of the city’s dampened spirits.


Lindóriel came down from her room when they were alerted to the army’s approach, descending the stairway through the turning autumn leaves.  Her own anxious expectation was tempered by the solemnity weighing upon Lasgalen, bereaved as it was.  Their population had been bled severely, and after so many years they simply wished to take back those who would return and begin to heal their wounds.  They already knew what they had lost.


Glancing aside, Lindóriel could see Thranduil’s quarters above her, elaborately hung with the royal colors bearing his sign.  The thought was still difficult to fathom.  Their prince was no more.  It was King Thranduil, sovereign lord of Eryn Galen, who would return to them now.  She could only imagine what he must be feeling.


A crowd was gathering around the road to the palace, ready to receive their returning warriors.  Lindóriel bravely took her place with the other maids of the king’s house beside Lady Lóriel.


They could hear the approaching column before they saw it.  There was no welcoming feast or fanfare prepared.  They could not find it within their hearts to celebrate, but nor would they mourn overmuch.  They had been mourning for seven years.


At last, the royal vanguard rounded the final bend.  The king rode at its head upon a jaded stallion, fully armed and escorted by Dorthaer and his Guardsmen.  The militant splendor in which they had departed was all but lost, their tunics and standards torn and stained, shields dented and scarred.  Thranduil carried himself with as much dignity as he perhaps had spirit for, though the impression was overwhelmingly one of sorrow and numb fatigue. 


The people bowed at his passing, recognizing their new sovereign.  He received the same formal obeisance as he dismounted and stood before his household, giving the horse to the care of his escort.  Unable to help herself, Lindóriel looked up at him. Thranduil remained silent for a moment, towering over them in the growing dusk of evening, a distant loneliness about him.


He first took his mother by the hand and gently drew her to her feet.  They said nothing to one another, but he took her in his arms and held her close against his shoulder, an embrace she ardently and tearfully returned.


Gwaelin fell into Galadhmir’s arms, both still grieving their fallen son. 


When Thranduil released his mother, Lindóriel was there to offer her own consolation, but as she moved to put her arms about him something made her hesitate.  There were deeper shadows behind his eyes than she had seen before, as well as a lingering aura of war and death about him.  They had all felt it before, but it was so distinct now that it stopped her for a moment.


“Dorthaer,” Thranduil directed, “dismiss the ranks in good order.  The reserve here shall continue in that capacity until I give notice otherwise.”


“At your command, my lord.  Will you retire now?”


“I shall, and I ask that I not be disturbed until the morning.  Until then, address yourself to Lord Brilthor.”


“Yes, my lord.”


 



A bath and some clean clothes seemed to do a great deal to make Thranduil more comfortable but did little to dispel the gloom.  He carried it with him like a shroud, pacing about his room from window to window in the lamplight, lost in that foul and invisible mire which still clung to him.  Lindóriel knew that no one seriously blamed him or his father for the disaster, but she could see that he bore the burden of fault nonetheless.


“There is nothing more you could have done, Thranduil,” Lady Lóriel was saying again.


“You are by no means the first to tell me so, Mother,” was his terse reply, “but it is still poor consolation.”


Two of the wolves lurked about in the shadows, a third enjoying Lindóriel’s distracted attentions. They were quiet, cowed beneath their master’s unrest.


“What hurts you?” his mother demanded at last.  “I am not blind to the fact that you have been in considerable pain all evening.”


“It is only my back,” Thranduil snarled bitterly, evidently annoyed by his inability to conceal his discomfort.  “It seems I cannot so much as ride a horse anymore without jostling myself to pieces!”  He lashed out and kicked over a stool, sending a wolf scurrying away to a new haunt.  The violence of his frustration soon subsided, and his expression softened.


Lóriel sighed, for she had become rather tense herself.  “Come,” she said, beckoning him to his bed.  “Let me see.”


Lindóriel saw Thranduil hesitate for a moment, narrowing his eyes and glancing aside at her, but at last he seemed to dismiss whatever reservations he had and resignedly removed his shirt.  “We never seemed to heal well in Mordor,” he said, with some regret.


They could not help a sharp intake of breath at the sight of his scars, each one a smooth white shadow of the wound it had once been.  Considering their number, it was a wonder he had returned to them alive.


Thranduil quietly submitted to his mother’s attentions, lying on his bed and allowing her to try kneading some of the pain out of his back.


“How did it happen?” Lóriel asked, gently but firmly, as she probed his lingering injuries.  “Can you tell me?  What did you see?”


Thranduil winced, more pained by the memory than by his wounds.  “No,” he said at last.  “I cannot.  Do not ask me.”


“You must,” his mother insisted, changing her tone.  “If you cannot yet bear the fact of it after seven years, how are you ever to face it?  Tell me.  What did you see?”


Lindóriel remembered the death of her own father.  She had seen it in all its grisly detail, remembered the heart-wrenching, nauseating flood of loss.  Now her heart ached for Thranduil, knowing what this dredge of memory must cost him.


“Nothing,” Thranduil bit out at last, curling his fist around a handful of bedding.  “I do not know what happened.  No one who saw it survived.”  He gasped and writhed as a sudden spasm shot through his back.


“Gently!” his mother admonished, now attempting only to loosen the great clench of muscles.  “Gently!  I am sorry, Thranduil; I will not touch it again.”  She moved now to his shoulders, sitting on the bed beside him.  “Go on.”


But Thranduil did not seem inclined.  “I do not know,” he repeated adamantly, recovering his breath.  "No one knows.  Yet they assume.”


Lóriel’s lovely mouth formed itself into a firm line, seeming to guess what scathing hearsay her son would keep from her.  “It was not through lack of courage that he fell,” she insisted.  “Be certain of that.”


Thranduil had gone limp, straining no more against anything, as though his last effort was spent.  He was so much older, so jaded and dispirited, yet a glow was in those eyes which had grown cold to so much else, refined in the fires of Mordor.  “It takes more than courage,” he said deeply, “to make a king.”


Silence fell for several long moments.  Soon Lóriel rose and bid her son good-night, cloaking her solicitude in the deference now due him.


Finally alone with her betrothed, Lindóriel hardly knew what to do.  Thranduil had sat up again, looking ahead with a vacant stare.  He was so much the same and yet so different.  He would always be Thranduil, her friend, brother, protector, and lover.  Yet in some significant way it was a different person to whom she now addressed herself.  She no longer approached a prince, but indeed the king himself in all his awful majesty.  He was now the crown and pinnacle of all that moved in Eryn Galen; his word was law, the power of his will was absolute, and at the movement of his sovereign hand the whole wood trembled.  She would no longer be a princess, but his queen.  Could she bear to stand on that pinnacle with him?


The chill had begun to melt in Thranduil’s eyes, and the loneliness she saw there pained her heart.  He turned and reached out to her, almost pleading with her to relieve his solitude.  She could never refuse him that.  It was not as king that he bade her come, but as the man she had always known and loved, straining beneath the weight of a crown which he was only just learning to bear.


She rose and approached him, hesitantly sliding her hand into his.  It was truly the first time she had touched him since he had kissed her farewell so many years before, and the potent tingle made her catch her breath.  There was the echo of death in that touch, yet also so much vibrant life.


Thranduil again recognized her hesitance.  He did not let her go, but he would not force her nearer.  “Am I so changed as that?” he asked, as though at last nothing could wound him more deeply than the fact that he had become repulsive to her.


With a shuddering sigh, Lindóriel fell into his arms.  Thranduil held her in a crushing embrace as though he never intended to let her go again.  So much had been torn from him already.  She buried her face against his scarred shoulder, lamenting it all, yet ineffably grateful that he had been spared.  They were both crying, just as they had an age before while Doriath burned behind them.  So much had changed since those bleak and hopeless days, yet some things would always remain.


When they had exhausted their tears, they sat in simple silence for a moment, neither wishing to release the other.  Then Thranduil shifted her in his arms, looking into her eyes so intently that she scarcely noticed as he eased her down onto the bed beside him.  Leaning over her, he kissed her gently, and she did not resist.  She lifted her hand to trace a new white scar running through his brow beside his eye, both a reminder of their sorrows and an everlasting badge of valor.


“Do you still wish to be espoused to me?” he asked with all the authority that was his to command, their hair lying already mingled on the coverlet.


“I do,” she answered with equal resolve.  “Say but when.”


A fire was kindled in his eyes that she had never seen before, and his hand had now crept up to press possessively at the base of her throat. The audacious smile she had missed so much began to show itself once more, and his voice became velvet.


“When can you be ready?”


 



Within two weeks, Galadhremmen Lasgalen was transformed from a state of resigned grief to one of unspeakable joy, all the dark and brooding colors banished in bright white, green, yellow, and silver, the entire city resplendent again for the coronation of its new king.  Crowned beside him was the queen he took for his own the same day.  Lady Lóriel presided over the giving of the rings, invoking the name of Oropher who was absent, and wishing upon them the blessings of the Belain and of the One who reigns forever beyond the stars.


So began the reign of Thranduil Thalion Oropherion, King of Greenwood the Great in the Third Age of the world.




ARAN

Chapter 2 ~ Into Shadow




The glow of the lamps alone remained to illuminate Lasgalen after sunset, shining amid the trees like netted stars drawn down to earth.  Among the most constant of these beacons was the light of the king’s study, a comfort and a consolation as he presided over his people in silence.


Thranduil did not intend to work late that night.  There was indeed little reason to do so.  Some semblance of normality had returned to Greenwood in the two years which had already elapsed since his return, and so as he swept his signature once more over a dispatch it was with the intention that it would be his last for the evening.


“Will you take another?” Linhir asked, glancing down to the modest stack of papers at his elbow. They had already been arranged by order of importance and urgency, improving even on the work of the under-secretary.  As Thranduil’s seneschal, Linhir had no equal.


“No, not tonight,” the king declined, setting his quill aside.  “Unless you know of something which demands my immediate attention.”


Linhir made but a meager attempt to stifle a smile, glancing aside as he put away the rest of the documents.  “Yes, I do,” he said; “but she awaits you upstairs.”


Thranduil also allowed himself a crooked grin.  “Expunge that smile from your face,” he demanded, leveling an accusatory finger.  “You have had little else on your mind since you discovered Illuiniel.”


“I am very sure you understand the sentiment, my lord,” Linhir replied.


“I am not going to argue with you.”  Thranduil stood and stretched briefly, leaving his desk in good order, which is to say as good as he had found it.  “I am going to bed.  Mind the house a few hours more, my friend, and then you, too, may return to your lady wife.  And be certain the preparations for the arrival of the King of Gondor are begun immediately tomorrow morning.  We shall have little enough time to accommodate these Númenóreans properly.”


“Very well, Thranduil.  A good night to you, and bear my love to Lindóriel.”


The Guardsmen at the door dutifully recognized their king as he passed.  There was no need to escort him, for they were stationed thickly throughout the palace at each door and entryway.  Relieved of their extraneous military duties, their diminished number now served exclusively as his personal guard, the function that for many had been their last on the plains of Mordor.


Thranduil found Gwaelas waiting at the door of his chambers.  “Good evening, my lord,” he smiled as Thranduil climbed the last of the winding staircase.  “The queen awaits you.”


“I hope I have not kept her waiting long.”


“She has a patient heart, my lord,” Gwaelas assured him, opening the door before he also retired.


Thranduil paused as the door closed behind him.  Lindóriel was indeed waiting, wearing a diaphanous gown and carefully running a brush through her gleaming hair.  The wolves attended her, lying at the feet of their mistress in expectation of the master’s return.


“You enjoy doing this to me, do you not, love?” Thranduil asked playfully.


“Whatever do you mean, my lord?” she asked in turn, though there was no question in her eyes as she smiled coyly back at him.


“You obviously wish by this stunning display to remind me again what a fool I was to waste all those years which I might have spent with you,” Thranduil explained, discarding his mantle.  He slid his hands beneath her hair and over her essentially bare shoulders.  “Is that not your design?”


“You may believe so if you wish,” she said, deliberately denying him the triumph of an answer. 


No answer was necessary.  Instead, Thranduil turned her around and kissed her lightly on the cheek.  “That was from Linhir,” he explained.  Before she could object, he drew her nearer and kissed her fondly on the brow.  “That was from Galadhmir.”  Then, pulling her close against him, he kissed her full on the lips.  He let that one linger, holding her just as close even when it had ended, gently brushing her soft cheek, her perfect nose.


“And to which of you do I owe these endearments?” she asked with a smile.


“Your lord husband sends them, my lady,” Thranduil said, resuming his evening routine, idly unlacing his tunic.  “He regrets that he was not able to address his affections to you sooner, but he was only just able to escape his many duties.  He implores your forgiveness.”


“And I grant it readily,” Lindóriel assured him.  “I know he will make amends enough in his own time.”


Throwing his tunic over a chair, Thranduil sat on the edge of the bed and pulled off his boots.  After a fairly long day, he was ready to lie down and loosen the lurking crimp in his back.  He did so, looking up once more at the silver filigree encircling the bole of the tree as it passed through the ceiling, the same sight which began and ended each day.  Lindóriel rose and joined him there, sitting beside him with a look of quiet benevolence.


Thranduil smiled up at her, a simple and genuine smile without affectation.  “I missed you, Lin,” he said, a profession which lost none of its sincerity despite being repeated each evening.


“And I you,” she said, taking the hand he offered her.  “I would be little better than a distraction if I followed you about all day.”


“Such a distraction would hardly be unwelcome,” he insisted, drawing her down to lie beside him, an invitation to which she gave only feeble resistance.  


These quiet moments of simple intimacy at the close of each day were what Thranduil truly lived for even after two years of passionate marriage.  In those moments the world was stilled as he held her close with her head over his heart, breathing the fresh scent of her hair.  He could honestly say that he had never been happier.  His one grief was that he was not free to give himself entirely to her as a consequence of his office.  Thousands also demanded his care and attention, yet he was her own insofar as he was himself within his power to give.


The lamps burned lower at his will.  A deep peace lay over Lasgalen, stirred only by the rustle of the wind through the turning leaves.  Lindóriel lifted her head, her eyes sparkling in the twilight, and much passed between them which was never put to words.  He ran a gentle hand along the contours of her face, marveling again at the unfathomable and yet accomplished fact of their union.  So long delayed, so keenly anticipated, and so greatly underestimated, at least on his part.  He had never known he could love someone so much.


She leaned in and began to kiss him softly, slowly, and he allowed himself to be swept along with her.  The cares of the day melted away as they began to lose themselves in each other.


A sudden rap on the door shattered the moment and gave them both a start. 


Thranduil rumbled irritably to himself as the rapping continued, more than piqued by this inexcusable invasion of his privacy.  “No, wait here, love,” he said, instructing Lindóriel to remain where she was as he pulled himself up and swung a robe over his shoulders.


He was prepared to be quite cross, yet even as he grasped the handle and swung the door wide, he knew it would have to wait.  Gwaelas had already braced himself for the worst, so Thranduil had not the heart to blame him.  Besides, he knew Gwaelas would not dare disturb him here without grave cause.


“I must beg your pardon, my lord,” Gwaelas began, hardly daring to look at him, “but Lord Linhir awaits your convenience below.  He assured me you would wish to be informed without further delay.”


“Did he?”  Thranduil was a bit short despite himself.  Gwaelas flinched almost imperceptibly as though the words stung him.  “Informed of what, may I ask?”


“A runner has arrived from the Woodmen of the western marches.  Lord Linhir has received him, yet awaits the judgment of the king.  He was quite insistent.  I made my excuses, but he would have none of them.”


Thranduil sighed brusquely.  “Very well,” he said, closing the door once more.


“Linhir would not defer light matters to you at odd hours,” Lindóriel reminded him, attempting to soothe his temper.


“I know it,” Thranduil agreed with a deliberate calm as he stamped into his boots, threw on a shirt, and pulled his hair back into some semblance of order.  “Thank you,” he said, for she had appeared at his elbow and handed him his crown, the circlet of sharp beech leaves in white gold and diamond that had been Oropher’s legacy.  In a moment it was secured on his brow with all its cold flash and fire, and he turned to go.


“Do not wait up for me, Lin,” he said before closing the door behind him.  “I do not know how long I shall be.  Stay with her,”  he instructed the hounds, both of whom had stood up expectantly, only to sink back down with a canine groan.


The Guardsmen stayed well out of his way on the staircases.  Despite his superficial annoyance, Thranduil felt a growing apprehension, and knew that whatever Linhir had dragged him out of bed to hear would be well worth the trouble.  That worried him.  He was descending the stairs two at a time when at last he reached the King’s Hall.


Linhir met him with a slight frown of disapproval in reference to his state of undress, to which Thranduil arched a severe brow as though to inquire what he had expected under the circumstances.


“My lord,” Linhir began formally, “a messenger has arrived from the Woodmen of the western marches with tidings of the King of Gondor, who in a matter of days was to have arrived here in Lasgalen.”


“Was to have arrived?” Thranduil asked with a sinking premonition.  Linhir gestured to the messenger, inviting him to elucidate.


He was a young and hearty-looking specimen of his race, with wild hair and unkempt beard, clad in the usual rough manner of the woodland Men, and apparently on the verge of exhaustion.  He had risen again to his feet in the presence of the Elvenking whom he had come to address, yet swayed a bit where he stood.


“Say on,” Thranduil bade him in the Common Tongue of the region, with which he was reasonably proficient.  The Woodmen often had recourse to the Wood-elves and to their king, and therefore harbored more love than fear of him.


“O Lord of the Wood,” the young forester began in a voice roughened by his exertions, “I bear the words of the chieftain of the west march.  The Gondorians are destroyed at the Gladden Fields by the Orcs of the mountains.   The Orcs fled before us, but our aid came late and found few alive.”


“What of King Isildur?” Thranduil interjected, realizing with a cold prickle the possible implications of such a disaster.


“The Gondorian king has not been found.  They had not discovered him among the dead when I was sent.”


Thranduil held his peace for a long moment.  He could be certain of nothing, and consequently the possibilities were sobering.  His mind roiled with many questions to which the young woodman would have no answer.  “My thanks to you,” he said instead, choosing to bide his time.  “I myself shall send word to your chieftain, and my household will minister to you.  Linhir,” he began again, reverting back to their own Sindarin, “see that he has a bath, a good meal, and a horse to bear him home in the morning.  You,” he said, addressing one of the two Guardsmen at the door, “Lancaeron, see yourself mounted at once and direct the Woodmen to send any surviving wounded here to Lasgalen if possible.  Also any heraldry, insignia or jewelry found at the site that we may return it to Gondor.”


“At your command, sire.”


Linhir returned to the king when he had deposited the herald in capable hands.  “What are you thinking?” he asked grimly.


“Many dreadful things,” Thranduil admitted, staring away into nothingness.  “You did well to call me.”


“Did I wake you?” Linhir asked with a small and awkward smile.


Thranduil returned a similar expression.  “No.”


“I am sorry,” the other apologized.


“No matter,” Thranduil dismissed it.  “We suddenly have more portentous matters at hand.  Be certain I am called again the moment any survivors arrive, and send a company of our Elves to assist in burying the dead and scouring the field for any trinkets of interest which might have separated themselves from their masters.”


“As you wish, Thranduil.”


He returned to his quarters quietly, and Lindóriel was still awake to receive him.  She sat up in the darkness and waited for him to speak, but he said nothing.  His mind was still heavy with his own thoughts and he had no wish to burden her.  Rather than return to bed, Thranduil went out onto the porch, into the breeze and the thin starlight, pensively facing the southern horizon.  He saw nothing but the vast expanse of the wood, dark and undisturbed, but the memories of the battlefield were still too fresh to be ignored and they came flooding back.


The Black Tower had fallen.  He had witnessed its demolition, and indeed helped to pull stone from filthy stone with his own hands not two years ago.  He preferred not to remember the appalling things they had found within that fortress of nightmares, and his single consolation had been the thought that such abysses of evil were finally conquered forever.  Still, the lingering existence of Sauron’s pernicious Ring of Power had unnerved him, though at the time he had been too sunk in his own misery to give the matter much attention.  Even if the Dark Lord himself was a thing of the past, he did not like to leave something so momentous as the Ring unaccounted for.


The power of Sauron was destroyed.  Was it not?


Even that thought was suddenly an uneasy one.  Sauron had previously been left unaccounted for, and they had all lived to rue it.


“Thranduil,” Lindóriel called at last from the doorway, coming to stand at his side on the balcony.  “What is it?  Why did Linhir call you?”


Thranduil merely sighed and put his arm about her.  “Orcs have destroyed Isildur’s entourage,” he said.  “The king is missing.  I have sent some of our own to aid the Woodmen in their care of the dead.”


She was silent for a moment.  “May the Belain receive and guide their souls,” she said at last.  “Is that all that burdens you?  The hollow look in your eyes frightens me.”


“That is a difficult question,” Thranduil admitted, taking her back inside with him.  “Perhaps more difficult than we know.  But I would not like to dwell any more upon it tonight.  There is nothing to be done until morning.”


Lindóriel did not press him further for an explanation, trusting his judgment.  However, she did turn to face him, drawing herself up with all the august dignity of an Elven-queen despite a sultry look in her eye that he knew very well.  “I beg your pardon, my lord,” she said, “ but there are a great many things that may be done before morning.”


Preoccupied though he was, her very nearness was still a greater temptation than he was willing to bear.  She always knew how to draw him out of his melancholy.  Isildur, the Orcs, the Ring, and even Sauron himself faded to the back of his mind as he pulled on a single cord and loosed the stays on her night dress.  “I am yours to command, my lady.”


 



That morning dawned dark with an abundant threat of rain.  Thranduil had risen to see the last of the stars veiled by the encroaching clouds, and for a time he merely perched himself amid the highest branches of Galadhremmen Lasgalen, feeling the pulse of the forest beneath his hand.  The wood released the memory of Oropher only slowly, and it was his task to strengthen his own hold on his realm while peaceful days endured.  Its power would be his to wield when he had entrenched himself deeply enough, as it had been his father’s.  The first rumble of thunder was released from the churning clouds at his command, and he was satisfied.


He descended in time for breakfast, which he took quietly with his counselors, the Lords Linhir, Galadhmir, Anárion, and Brilthor.  The news of the disaster which had befallen the Gondorians cast a considerable gloom over the company, but it was by no means the only point of concern.  It seemed a domestic territorial dispute was again inflamed between two families of the northern marches, which Brilthor dutifully brought to the king’s attention.  The Woodmen of the south were making difficulties about the particulars regarding the delivery of a winter store of apples.  Thranduil waved these and other issues away for the moment.  What burned upon his mind now was of at least ten times their consequence.


“My lord,” interposed Lancaeron, the Guardsman standing in worn but otherwise perfect form in the doorway.  “At your command, we have returned bearing the Gondorian wounded.”


 



“He was discovered among the dead, but merely wounded and stunned,” Lancaeron explained as he led his king across the grounds toward the pavilion where the Men had been deposited. There were only three.


“Who is he?” Thranduil asked.


“He has not yet revealed his name, but we believe him to be a young man of some importance, as his heraldry seems to indicate.  The healers are with him now.”


Thranduil thanked him and bid him return to his duties, making his entrance into the pavilion alone.  The air was heavy with the scent of the impending storm, intensifying the already dour atmosphere of the place.  As he expected, Noruvion was present to oversee the healers at their work, his face grim and focused.


“Thranduil,” he acknowledged the king with a slight bow when he had finished washing the clotted blood from his hands.  He shook his head.  “They are all festering,” he said,  “but fortunately the Orcs have not had the ingenuity to concoct any novel poisons since the Alliance.  I dare say they have as good a chance of recovery as any at this point.  However, the mortal races have not been my study.”


“If they die, I shall be certain it was through no negligence of yours,” Thranduil assured him.  He had not forgotten how Noruvion’s skillful hands had put him back together in Mordor.  He would never forget it.


The king observed for a time, taking the measure of the scene.  All three Men were weakened by their various wounds, but apparently resting soundly.  It was without much difficulty that Thranduil distinguished the individual to whom Lancaeron had directed him.  More white and silver gleamed upon his gear than an ordinary soldier warranted.


“Thank you, that will do,” Thranduil directed, shooing away the two silvan healers who were in the process of changing a bandage.  “Leave us for a moment.”  They did not hesitate for more than an instant, and temporarily busied themselves carrying away the old linens and other refuse.


Thranduil took the vacant seat beside the bed and resumed wrapping the wound, a crippling gash to the forearm.  The dormant young man was not insensible to the change of presence beside him, and he woke slowly but with a start as his jaded eyes focused on the countenance of the Elvenking above him.  He stiffened, apparently uncertain how to properly comport himself.


“Stand down, sir,” Thranduil directed him, softly yet firmly, in the plain Sindarin with which he was accustomed to communicate with Isildur and his heralds.  A strong hand planted on his chest prevented the young soldier from doing otherwise.  “Can you answer me in the tongue of the Elves?” he asked, discreetly lowering his voice even further.


The Gondorian nodded feebly.  Though his strength was still at an ebb, his eyes were bright.


“What is your name?”


“Estelmo.”


“And in what capacity did you serve the House of Elendil?”


“Esquire of Elendur, king’s son.”


Estelmo’s voice did not yet seem willing to serve him properly, yet Thranduil understood what was necessary.  A prickle of suspense coursed through him, a hunter’s instinct.  The bereaved esquire was distracted by grief, struggling to contain tears of anger.


“Enough,” Thranduil said brusquely with a soldier’s pity.  “There will be time enough later.  Estelmo, can you tell me what has become of the King of Gondor?”


A fearful look came into the Man’s eye then, a spark of significant but possibly forbidden knowledge.


“Isildur, son of Elendil,” Thranduil demanded.  “Did you see him?”


An agony of indecision played over Estelmo’s worn features.  He nodded feebly, but then shook his head.


Thranduil’s eyes narrowed ominously.


 



A crackling roll of thunder shook Lasgalen and the wet pit-a-pat of rain began as the Elvenking strode over the damp grass toward his palace in the trees, his mantle billowing in his wake.


“Linhir,” he instructed his seneschal when he had resumed his seat at his desk.  “Summon two couriers for me at once, one for Lórinand and the other for Imladris.”


The order was little more than convention, for Linhir had merely to gesture and one of the two Guardsmen at the door sprinted away to do the king’s bidding.  In the meantime, Thranduil immediately set quill to paper.


He had little enough to report to Amroth and Elrond.  Isildur remained unaccounted for, whether dead or alive none could say.  Yet before he had been knocked senseless, Estelmo confessed that he had overheard a significant farewell between the prince and his father, and had then seen his king vanish in a blaze of red flame.


If Isildur was lost, Sauron’s Ring of Power was certainly lost with him.



ARAN

Chapter 3 ~ New Happiness




Seasons came, seasons passed, just as they had always done.  There was no further word of the unfortunate King of Gondor, and the domains of Men settled themselves in the wake of his unsettling disappearance as best they could.  Thranduil was not the only one haunted by the thought of the Ring of Power.  Elrond, too, in his enclave of Imladris, took a keen interest in that last vestige of Mordor’s terror, but was equally powerless to recover it.  Elvish riders were sent in a half-hearted and ultimately vain attempt to scour the shores of the Anduin amid the Gladden Fields for that which they regretted to have lost, and yet feared to find.  The temptation was to let the wretched thing lie undisturbed and pray that it went undisturbed indefinitely.


Seasons came, seasons passed, and life went on.


Thranduil governed Eryn Galen to the best of his ability, sparing an idle ear for what moved beyond their wooded borders.  Occasionally more, but never less.  The deep-seated paranoia of his violated youth was not healed by the passage of time, but merely quieted to a murmur in the depths of his mind until it had become a second nature of which he was scarcely conscious, governing his every action.


The windswept pinnacle of sovereignty on which he found himself had grown only more severe.  His mother had left them some years ago, returning with her modest entourage to Lindon, whence she at last took ship to Valinor to await his father.  Lady Lóriel had been content to see Lasgalen settled in Thranduil’s capable hands and Lindóriel as queen.  She keenly regretted to be parted from her son and his family and whatever the future may hold for them in Greenwood, but she had been confident of their eventual reunion on the western shores, though those days were still too distant to contemplate.


Despite the natural loneliness that his position inspired, Thranduil was far from miserable.  He was not even unhappy.  A cloud of nameless doom still lingered over the new age of Men in the aftermath of the war with Sauron, but his own realm was blossoming, and all his fears and misgivings seemed for once disinclined to materialize.


For the moment, Thranduil’s only complaint with life was the trivial but persistent discomfort of the headache which lurked just behind his eyes as he dutifully sat at his desk, addressing the driest and most mundane concerns which plague a king.  He had only just concluded a particularly frustrating round of audiences in the hall below regarding a few petty clan squabbles in which he had made a valiant effort to take an interest.  The native population had their pride, and it was not unremarkable to see it flare up from time to time.


Two litters of promising wolf pups were scampering about the grounds and palace of Lasgalen, of which Thranduil reserved to himself the final judgment regarding their general suitability for breeding.  Unfortunately, like all pups their age, they seemed inclined to employ those perfected teeth in vandalizing the woodwork of the king’s chambers and stairway.  The neighboring Wood-men had expressed an interest in the bloodline, yet Thranduil doubted it would be possible for them to meet the price he set upon his canine masterpieces.  If he was feeling benevolent later, he might make a gift of one to their chieftain.


Monetarily, they as a nation were certainly not starving, yet neither were they in particularly comfortable circumstances.  Daily needs were addressed, yet what remained of the army continued in woeful need of rearmament.  They were woodland soldiers capable of waging a woodland defense, yet they could not hope to meet a hostile force openly without the considerable expense of replacing the backbone of their forces in steel.  The silvan Elves excelled in many arts, yet metallurgy was not one of their primary strengths.  Dorthaer was keenly aware of the need, and now and then brought it to the king’s attention as tactfully as possible.  This morning had been one such occasion.


“And what is this?” Thranduil asked himself, selecting the next sheet covered with several paragraphs of severe elvish scrawl.  He would have directed the question to Linhir, yet his trusty seneschal was absent for the moment, attending some bit of pressing business the nature of which the king had already forgotten.  His face soured for a moment as he glanced over its contents.  “He wants what?  At a time like this.”


His attention was drawn away by footsteps at the door.  He hardly had to look up to recognize the handsome woodland scout with pale hair and eyes of brilliant blue.  The self-assured swagger in his step was unmistakable.


“Good evening, Thranduil,” the young one greeted him, inexcusably but characteristically informal, seeming a bit taken aback.  “You are alone?”


The king glanced sarcastically about the empty room.  “Save for you, yes,” he answered dryly, making no effort to hide the dissatisfaction in his voice.  “Really, Luinar, your etiquette remains as atrocious as ever.  I find it difficult to believe you are your father’s son.”


Luinar merely smiled.  “So does he.”  He was fleetingly distracted by a new volume standing at the end of the bookshelf, and leafed idly through it.  Its companion volumes, deprived of its support, fell heavily upon one another in an elegant fan formation of disarray.


Thranduil sighed.  “I expect your father will return shortly.  In the meantime, I trust you can find some other way to amuse yourself besides making a playroom of my study.”


“If he is to return so quickly,” Luinar observed, reshelving the books, “I might as well await him here.  Do you object, my lord?”


“Somewhat.”


There was a thoughtful pause.


“How shortly is ‘shortly?’”


“How am I to know?”  Thranduil demanded at last, exasperated by the interruptions.  “I cannot even remember why he went!”


“Pardon me, sir,” Hatholas interposed from the door.  “Luinar, I saw your father walking with Erelas in the direction of the dovecote a moment ago.”


“Another moment and he will have gone again,” Luinar said wryly, taking his leave as quickly as he had come.  “Thank you, Hatholas.  Good evening, Thranduil!”


Hatholas shook his head when the other had gone, but Thranduil by now could not help smiling himself.  “Let him be,” he said.  “Luinar is still burning the exuberance of youth, and I suspect it has a long wick yet.  He will mellow soon enough.”


Now it was Hatholas who smiled.  “You are a very disciplined king, my lord,” he said, “but I expect you will be a terribly indulgent father.”


Thranduil laughed, a bit more freely than he would have the previous week.  “Perhaps,” he agreed; “perhaps.  But what brings you to me now, Hatholas?  Of course, I am always glad to have you, but do you come with some manner of official business or merely to pass the time in pleasant company?”


“I regret to admit that it is the former,” Hatholas said, presenting to him a modest scroll tied with twine.  “I have just returned from my father’s house.  He bade me leave this in your hands.”


With an expression of resignation, Thranduil accepted and unrolled it.  He found before him a map representing two distinct sets of land divisions, the first as it had existed in the time of Amon Lasgalen, and the second according to the order Oropher had attempted to impose upon it following the relocation of the king’s court in the north.  As the king’s representative to the southern regions, Luinlas had apparently assembled an excellent summary of the difficulties.


“This is what sense he has been able to make of the present boundary contentions,” Hatholas clarified.


“Yes,” Thranduil said, “I was trying to make sense of that only this morning.  I commend your father for his patience.  It seems not a day goes by that Luinlas does not confirm Oropher’s good opinion of him.”


“He will be glad to know you think so, my lord.”  Hatholas confined himself to a cultivated smile, though Thranduil could see he was positively beaming with filial pride.


“Send my regards to your parents,” Thranduil bade as Hatholas, too, took his leave.  “When next I find a moment, I should like to visit them in the south.  Or, if circumstances allow them leave before I, bring them to Lasgalen.”


“Certainly, my lord.  I thank you.”


Alone again, Thranduil took up the map.  Tiring of his chair, he stood and allowed himself to fall in a graceful heap on the divan.  He was tempted to simply allow his mind to drift with the fading autumn birdsong, yet the stack of petitions would not shrink on its own.  The shadow of a whimsical smile on his face betrayed the truth, that his attention was far more agreeably engaged.  How could he possibly concentrate at a time like this?  He had just mustered up his determination when the guards at the door pulled themselves to attention and announced the arrival of the queen.


“No, do not get up,” Lindóriel smiled as he began to rise, pushing him gently back down.  “I came merely to ask your leave to ride this evening in the wood with my maids.”


“Of course, you may, love,” he said, fondly clasping the hand she offered him.  “How far do you intend to venture?”


“No farther than the Forest Road,” she assured him.  “We shall return well in time for supper.”


She lingered a moment, then kissed him slowly, stealing away all the gathered tension of the day in that one effort.  Her eyes were bright with the new happiness they had begun together.  He hoped she would bear that light for the rest of her life.


She left him with a smile and a soft rustle of skirts, carrying unseen within her the child they had conceived three nights before, their own secret for a few days yet.   She was followed by her train of handmaids, six chosen companions in irreproachable equestrian attire.  Doubtless the dogs would also go with her.


“Lancaeron,” Thranduil called to the guard at the door, sitting up.  “Go and tell Dorthaer to double the guard before the queen's party in the region of the Forest Road.  Quietly, of course.”




Chapter 4 ~ The Golden Years




The entire wood celebrated the announcement that their king had at last fathered an heir, and all awaited the birth with glad expectation.  Many returning warriors had become new fathers over the past decades and they gladly welcomed their sovereign into their number.  When several months had passed, and the royal parents were reasonably certain the child was a son, the popular exuberance increased threefold.  Preparations for the proper ceremonies began as early as that, and the queen and her maids set about embroidering intricate banners and pennons for the arrival of the little prince.  


Despite his own excitement, Thranduil harbored worries which he could not ignore.  Gradually weighed down by her condition, Lindóriel was more obviously than ever the most delicately built of the family.   He consoled himself with thoughts of her strength as he had known it, her endurance, her resilience.  After all, Noruvion had taken a slender silvan wife and she had borne him a son without complications.  Surely his fears for Lindóriel’s health were baseless.  Yet he had not forgotten that sobering moment when Oropher had confided to him how much his Lóriel had been changed by bearing a single son. 


The people were intrigued; this prince would be both of the sovereign Iathrim and yet wholly their own.  He would be small, some said, slender and lovely like his mother, and would never outgrow the shadow cast by his father.  Others argued that he would be more his father’s son, a big boy with broad shoulders, a difficult burden for their beloved queen.


Thranduil, however, suspected that Lindóriel had her own distinct ideas regarding the precious life she carried.  She tired easily, especially now in the final months, and the strain upon her was evident despite her radiant happiness.  She was employing all her efforts and energy in the development of their child, sometimes a bit more generously than was prudent.  Thranduil was not blind to the fact, and he often lent her what strength of his own he could spare, an extremely intimate exercise which they found came quite easily with practice. 


He found her reading when he returned to her on a faded summer evening, elegantly propped up on the divan with cushions and well attended by her maids, all of whom rose and discreetly excused themselves upon the arrival of the king. 


“Are you tired?” he asked when they were alone, knowing well the answer.  She scarcely left their room now, unless it was on a short excursion into the gardens below.


“Somewhat,” she admitted, “but it should be nothing to worry you, love.  You have worries enough already.”


“You know I can always spare a bit of worry for you,” Thranduil smiled, sitting down beside her and sliding a fond hand over her belly.  The child stirred energetically, already recognizing his father.  The kick against his hand was undoubtedly a strong one, and he never ceased to be fascinated by the sensation.


Thranduil sighed.  “You do too much, Lin,” he said again.  “I do not want you to exhaust yourself.”


“I do not intend to,” she assured him with a smile, “but nor will I neglect this son of yours.  He will be as much like his father as lies within my power.”


“Do not neglect yourself,” he asked, almost pleading with her.  “You carry more than my son with you.”


She merely slid her hand over his, comforting him with her own confidence.  “Your heart is safe with me,” she promised. 


Thranduil smiled too, but softly.  “They do not let me spend enough time with you,” he complained, leaning forward to kiss her cheek, her throat, to feel her heart flutter the way it always did.  “I do not want to go back.  Do you think they would excuse me for the afternoon?”


“Your people are waiting for you,” she reminded him, around a smile of intense pleasure.  He could feel the growing tingle of excitement against her skin as he leaned farther into the embrace, snaking his arms around her.  “You ought not disappoint them.”


“I am the king,” he retorted with good-humored petulance.  “I can stay and make love to my own queen if I wish.  Oh!”   He coughed as the child between them kicked him in the stomach.


Lindóriel laughed with a genuine and spontaneous mirth which always made her twice as beautiful.  “He loves you, too,” she assured him.  “And he seems to have your otherwise impeccable sense of duty.”


“Oh, very well,” Thranduil conceded.  “So long as you know I will return as soon as I possibly can.”  He rose and planted a parting kiss on her lips as he went.  “I love you.”


“And I you,” she smiled.


Another month passed with a mixture of expectation and some apprehension.  Lindóriel’s spirits were undampened, but she could no longer hide the mounting strain.  Thranduil looked after her himself as his duties would allow him.  He no longer received audiences, and he removed his paperwork to their private chambers.  The rest and attention seemed to do her good.


The queen officially went into confinement on the day appointed.  Autumn had come again and the sky was dark with promise of welcome rain.  A crowd assembled to wish her well as she disappeared into the royal chambers, hopefully to emerge with their long-awaited heir.


Thranduil lingered in the room as the maids bustled about gathering everything that could be prepared in advance of the birth.  He was rather agitated himself, but largely with pride and acute anticipation.  Lindóriel smiled up at him, an island of serenity amid the commotion. 


“You may go if you have other business, love,” she said.  “I am sure they will call you when it becomes interesting.”


“I,” he insisted, sitting on the bed beside her, “am going nowhere.”  He kissed her fondly, taking her slender hand in his own.  “Today of all days, I am your husband, Lin, nothing more.”


The lines on her brow betrayed her anxiety.  “Thank you.  I did hope you could stay.”


“Nothing could make me leave you,” he promised.


The child was very much awake, apparently as ready to enter the world as they were to welcome him.  Thranduil ran his hand over a bump he assumed was either a foot or a knee, and was rewarded with a flutter of excitement.  He could tell there was a distinct personality there, though largely dormant, and the sense that his unborn son already recognized him was more thrilling than he had imagined.


“Have you chosen a name for him yet?” Lindóriel prodded.


“Do not rush me,” he replied.  “Let me see him and then I will decide.  You did promise me the sons.”


“Yes, well, do not expect me to share the daughters.”


The birth itself began late that evening, and the heavy expectation in the air became feverish excitement.  The more burdensome pangs began in earnest in the depth of the night, just as the rain began pounding on the roof.  No one was very concerned until shortly before dawn when it became evident that the labor had yielded no result whatsoever since it had begun.


Lindóriel was bearing the ordeal as gracefully as possible, but she no longer spent her remaining strength speaking.  Thranduil remained as close as he could without crowding her, yet he was becoming increasingly frustrated with the maids who were proving ineffective midwives.  After another fruitless hour, he took matters into his own hands.


“Bring Noruvion up here,” he commanded. 


Noruvion appeared in short order, as though he had expected to be called eventually.  He assessed the situation calmly, but with a grim face.  He said nothing for a time, instead merely sat and observed.  Thranduil was tempted to be short with him, but by that time he knew better than to question the physician's methods.  Another grueling half hour passed, during which the furrows in Noruvion's brow only deepened.


At last, he stood.  “Thranduil,” he said, beckoning, “come with me for a moment.”


Thranduil glowered, reluctant to leave his wife when she seemed to need him most, but he went.


Safely outside the room, Noruvion turned to face him with a dispassionate expression that always boded ill.  “I have never seen this for myself among the Iathrim,” he said, “but I have heard of it.  Her body simply cannot allow for the easy passage of children.  For all her effort, it does not seem the child has moved in the least.”


“And your only suggestion is rather invasive?”  Thranduil's throat had suddenly become very dry.


“If her labor is allowed to continue, it could go on for days,” Noruvion reasoned, “which could very well be the death of the child.  In the worst case, it could be her death as well.”


“That is unacceptable,” Thranduil protested.  It was a reflex; for a moment he had ceased to think.  It seemed unreal, the possibility of losing everything at once on a day that should have been so full of joy.


“I can make you no promises,” Noruvion went on, “but if you will allow me, I will do everything in my power to save them both.”


In a moment, as his brief flood of panic subsided, Thranduil knew there was very little to consider at that point.  As much as he hated the thought of inflicting greater pain on Lindóriel, under no circumstances could he let her die.  He had never realized just how lonely a woman's battles could be, but she would not have to endure this alone if he could help it.  “It seems we have very little choice in the matter,” he said.  “Do what you must.”


Noruvion nodded, and they returned inside.  He immediately began giving orders and directions, making it seem less like a birthing room and more like a field hospital.  Thranduil returned to Lindóriel and cradled her head against his shoulder. 


“Just relax for me,” he said.  She was too weak to give much resistance, and seemed disinclined to question him.  A desperate idea was growing in his mind as he watched Noruvion select a very fine knife from his collection.  He remembered their most intimate moments together, the intense union of their deepest selves.  The difficulty was that he did not know if he could evoke that union on his own.


“I am afraid our endeavor has not gone to plan, love,” he said in as calm a voice as he could manage.  Noruvion was assembling several maids with clean linens, and had prepared a needle and hair thread, implements Thranduil knew all too well.  “Noruvion is going to put a stop to this before it becomes any worse.”


A faint smile did touch her lips, though she did not open her eyes.  “I am sorry,” she managed to say.  “I had wanted to prove my strength to you, but it seems it was not to be.”


“You may prove it yet,” Thranduil assured her.  “The battle is far from won.  We need your strength now more than ever.”


Another pang prevented her reply, though she gripped his hand with greater force than he expected.


“Noruvion is a master of his craft, as I can well attest, but the process is difficult to endure,” he said at last, almost frantic in his efforts to both prepare and reassure her.  “Look at me, love.  Please stay with me.”


“I would never leave you of my own choosing,” Lindóriel assured him.  She seemed calmer than before, and her breathing had deepened, almost as though her body had exhausted itself for the moment.


Noruvion was ready, standing over them with blade in hand and three maids ready to swab blood.


“Forgive me, Lin,” Thranduil said, seeing their time was up; “I know this is not what you want at this moment.”  Before she could object, he lifted her face and kissed her with all the passion he could muster.


There it was, the mutual spark that flared into an ecstasy of shared consciousness.  Lindóriel was too far gone to do more than let her mind drift in the comfort his inmost presence could provide, but Thranduil had a very focused objective, to shield her from her suffering.  It required every ounce of his composure to do no more than flinch when it came, that horribly familiar feeling, the cold scrape of a blade through flesh.


Noruvion made the incisions quickly, but very carefully.  The sharp smell of fresh blood filled the room in an instant.  Thranduil forced himself to look, breathless with more than just the incredible pain as his friend reached into Lindóriel's open womb and lifted out the languid infant.  The child was immediately passed to the most reliable of the queen's maids as Noruvion finished his work and closed the wounds, stitch by agonizing stitch.


“She may have this for the pain,” he said when he had finished, administering a dose of the usual decoction he always recommended.


A look of quiet serenity had returned to Lindóriel's pallid face now that the worst of the ordeal was over.  “I love you,” she whispered as she at last fell into a deep recuperative sleep. 


Thranduil simply held her, afraid he might be sick if he tried to speak.  The pain had made him lightheaded, and the unpleasant sensation of having been disemboweled threatened to turn his stomach.  When the drug had at last taken effect, he let her go and fell back against the headboard, sapped but satisfied. 


In a few moments Noruvion had swaddled the wailing child and proudly presented him to his father.  “You two earned this one,” he said with a wry smile.  “You look as bad as she does.”


“Keep your opinions,” Thranduil retorted in kind, his excitement overpowering his weariness.  “She looks lovely, as always.” 


He took his infant son and cradled him close in the crook of his arm, surprised by how natural it felt.  At once the forlorn crying ceased, comforted by a familiar and trusted presence.  Already awed by the miracle of it all, Thranduil knew he would value that trust for the rest of his life.


He was so small, so frail, but perfectly formed and full of hidden life, still unfurling like a tender young leaf in the spring.  He had considered naming him for Beleg, the mentor of his childhood in Doriath, Lindóriel's kinsman.  She had wanted to name him for Dorlas, her father, or something which recalled the strong onset of springtime for which Thranduil himself had been named.  A blend of them all seemed to suggest itself, a happy accident of the silvan influence on their Sindarin language, just as the child in his arms was heir to many different legacies.


“What shall we tell the city?” Noruvion asked.


Thranduil smiled.  “His name is Legolas.”



Chapter 5 ~ The Golden Years II




The forest had very gradually reclaimed the old paths, stretching only reluctant tendrils across the byways in forlorn hope that the old lords would return.  The arbors which had once been filled with laughter now sounded only with birdsong.  Still, this part of the wood had not been completely abandoned.  Some of its Elvish guardians remained, unseen and unheard. 


It was with a pang of nostalgia that Thranduil rode through the southern marches again.  He had always intended to return to the old city someday, but had not seen it since removing north with his father.  For the first time in a long while, he felt his years. 


Legolas rode beside him, full of raw energy at the cusp of his majority.  He already carried himself like an adult, if one could overlook his innocence.  His eyes still shone with a child's wonder, but the natural gravity about him revealed an emotional maturity that was a credit to any prince. 


“This lane used to be much wider,” Thranduil observed.  “There are not many of the old trees left.”


“Was it very much like our city is now?” Legolas asked.  


“Rather like.  The hill was higher, and we had more visitors.”


Together they turned their horses onto the winding road that climbed the slope toward what remained of Amon Lasgalen.  There were no cheering crowds to greet them, and the slender trees which lined the way had grown wild.  The spirit of the place lingered with an immortality of its own despite it all, a testimony to the care and attention given by the master architect.


“I wish you could have known your grandfather,” Thranduil said at last.  “He would have been quite pleased with you.”


Legolas smiled.  “I may meet him yet,” he said, “somewhere in the other world.”


“You are so full of hope and enthusiasm,” Thranduil said with a weary smile.  “Young people always are.  Even I was young once, believe it or not.”


“You are still young at heart, Father.”


“Having children will have that effect on you.”


The summit of the hill was still shaded by ancient beech trees, but none of the original structures remained in the branches.   


“Mother’s roses are still here,” Legolas observed. 


“They certainly are.”  Indeed, they were everywhere, entwined all around them like a golden crown on the hilltop.  Thranduil dismounted and held out a hand for his son’s reins.  “Go have a look around.  I will wait for you.”


He tied the horses to a low-slung branch and seated himself in the grass.   He watched as Legolas explored the site, touching the trees, tasting the air, gleaning whatever lingering impression of Oropher’s presence remained there.  Thranduil could feel it himself, like an echo or ripples in a pond.  The world was a poorer place without Oropher Thoronion, but rather than look back to a past of regrets, Thranduil could not help appreciating how bright their future seemed. 


The last decades had been the happiest years of his life.  Legolas was all he had ever hoped for in a son, and the new generation growing up in their wood promised to be a credit to the memory of those who had been lost.  He felt completely content, with a deeper sense of personal fulfillment and peace of mind than he could ever remember.  All was as it should be, when one considered the circumstances.


Ever since Legolas’ birth, Thranduil had wanted to bring him here, to help him feel some connection to his family’s past.  He could not bring him to Beleriand, to Doriath, or to the ruins of Menegroth.  Here, on a hill that had been called Amon Lanc in the far south of Eryn Galen, was the first place they had truly claimed as a home since the fall of the Mithrin kingdom in the First Age.  These were the deepest roots that survived.


Legolas was seated some distance away against the bole of one of the most ancient trees left on the hill.  He was diligently listening for whatever whispers of memory the wind would bring, holding in his hands the drawing Thranduil had made for him of the city as it had appeared in the last age.  Even now Thranduil could imagine he heard the horns of the huntsmen, the songs of the children, the baying of the hounds.  He hoped his son could hear it, too.


They spent the night there, camped in the open air beneath the stars.  On his back in the grass, Thranduil was silent for a while, appreciating the view of the cloudless night sky through the thinning treetops.  In the stillness he could satisfy for a moment that yearning for timelessness which burned within every Elvish heart.  For a moment he was young again, deep in the woods of Beleriand with Beleg and Mablung, looking up at the same stars.  Though the world was ever changing around them, at least the stars remained familiar.


“Father,” Legolas said at last, bringing Thranduil suddenly back to the present, “did you really know Elwing and Eärendil?”


“We all did,” Thranduil said, meaning everyone of Oropher’s original company.  Legolas, he knew, must be looking at that brightest of stars, just visible over the trees.  “We left Doriath together and dwelt for many years by the sea.  She is your cousin, though many times removed.”


He knew it must seem fantastic to Legolas’ young mind, attempting to fathom the long centuries and everything they had seen.  Thinking about it now, it seemed rather incredible even to him.  He raised a hand in the darkness, reaching up as if to touch that gleaming point of light.  For a moment it almost seemed near enough.


“I held that star once in the palm of my hand,” he said, remembering the Silmaril of Lúthien.  “Only once, but experience enough for a lifetime.” 


Legolas said nothing.  There had been a brief span of time as he had grown older when he had begun to question all the tales he had loved as a child, suddenly realizing he was meant to accept them as fact.  It had been wryly amusing to watch him make his own inquiries, once even writing to Elrond in Imladris for an independent account.  Thranduil had not been offended by his doubt.  The events of the First Age were so far removed from their daily reality in Eryn Galen that he could hardly blame him for wondering whether his parents had truly lived in a world where Valar walked the earth and whole continents fell into the sea.  The young prince was heir to more than he realized.


“Your home in Doriath was sacked twice, and you survived two of the three Kinslayings,” Legolas said.  It was not a question.  “You saw the War of Wrath, you spoke to Sauron, fought in the Battle of Dagorlad and the Siege of Mordor.”


“Yes.”


“Father, how is it that you are still alive?”


Thranduil laughed.  Many times he had wondered the same thing himself.  “There must be some reason,” he agreed.  “If it was only to raise you, it was well worth it.”






Chapter 6 ~ The Golden Years III



The centuries passed in a blur of uneventful bliss.  If he were not always reminded in an official capacity, Thranduil would have long ceased to mark the passage of time.  Life was perfect.


He had turned his desk to face the westward window in his study, affording a view of the road below.  Legolas was expected to return soon from his second extended stay in Imladris.  The welcome peace throughout Middle-earth had made travel between the two Elvish cities safer and more routine, so Thranduil had gladly importuned Elrond to supplement his son’s education.  Legolas had enjoyed his first year there so much that he had insisted on returning for another some time later.


Greenwood was as vibrantly alive as it had ever been, the forest brimming with everything they could possibly need.  When one also considered the lively trade which existed between their realm and the neighboring Men, they were in a very comfortable position.  Thranduil reflected with some satisfaction that the coffers were nearly full for the first time since Oropher had equipped their army for the Last Alliance.  With that in mind, he wrote a note which Linhir would recast in more official language decreeing that the taxes be suspended that year. 


Laughter rang through the trees like music as children chased each other across the soft spring grass below.  Thranduil smiled, pleasantly distracted.  The population had been growing steadily for years, more than redeeming their losses from the last Age.  Legolas and his peers had grown to adulthood long ago, thriving beneath the branches of their woodland paradise.


Several of them rode across the sward behind Dorthaer, returning from yet another training exercise in the wood with the master of the King’s Guard.  Luinar and Anorrín, sons of Linhir and Anárion respectively, were at the forefront.  Two of their usual comrades were missing, Legolas and his cousin Calenmir, Galadhmir’s son, but it would not be long before they rejoined them as well.


As the afternoon wore on, Thranduil noticed he was not the only one waiting.  Lorivanneth, Linhir’s daughter, was seated in a patch of sun beneath a tree, looking up from her stitching every now and then to peer down the wooded lane.  Though they had always been friends, she and Legolas had grown much closer over the last few years.  It could well be that the royal family would gain a princess before long.  Thranduil often wondered whether his relationship with Lindóriel would have matured as smoothly as that if they had enjoyed a thousand years of peace as this generation had.  It seemed they were all soon to be extraordinarily happy. 


Just as the afternoon shadows lengthened into evening, he heard the sound of approaching horses.  Thranduil put down his quill and glanced outside, immensely gratified to see Legolas, Calenmir and their attendants riding onto the lawn and dismounting at the picket rail.  They all looked a bit travel worn, but none the worse for it.  Legolas swept Lorivanneth into his arms and swung her around happily.  Thranduil turned and descended the stairs at a leisurely pace, giving them a moment together.


Legolas looked up and smiled when he saw him coming across the grass.  “I told you I could bring them back alive!” he said.


“You have not disappointed me yet.”  Thranduil pulled his son into a fierce embrace, glad to have him home.  “Welcome back.  And you, Calenmir.  We hardly knew what to do with ourselves without you two.”


“I expect Lord Elrond may be saying the same thing now,” Calenmir said, smiling broadly.  He and Legolas could have been brothers, they looked so alike.  At first glance, Legolas had always resembled his mother’s family.


“I trust you did not try your host’s patience too much or too often,” Thranduil said, motioning for them to follow.  “I am sure I shall hear all about it later.  You have just enough time to make yourselves presentable for dinner.  Erelas can manage the horses, yes?”


“Yes, my lord.”  Erelas took the reins of the extra horses and led them away towards the stables with his fellows.  As Oropher’s personal manservant, Erelas had unfortunately found himself without a master after the war, but he seemed quite happy now looking after Legolas.


Calenmir hurried away in the direction of his father’s house.  Legolas took his brief leave of Lorivanneth; brief, because Thranduil was certain he would go looking for her later that evening.  Together they headed back across the lawn toward the King’s House.


“So, how was Imladris the second time?” Thranduil asked.


“Just as interesting as it was at first,” Legolas confessed.  “I am afraid Calenmir could not sit still enough to study for at least a week after we arrived.  Thank you for allowing us to go.”


“I am grateful you had the opportunity,” Thranduil said, quite honestly.  “Peace can be a very rare commodity, not that you or the rest of your fortunate young friends would realize that.” 


“We are not that young anymore, Father,” Legolas smiled.


“You know you will always seem young to me.  Go on and wash.  Your mother and I shall wait for you.”


Dinner that night was roast hare in a butter and herb sauce with chestnuts, dandelion salad, and a generous platter of honey biscuits.  Fortunately, the king and queen needed to wait only a few minutes before their son hurried in to join them.  The dogs leapt up to greet him.


“Good evening, Mother,” Legolas said pleasantly, pushing the dogs down and leaning across the table to kiss Lindóriel’s cheek.  “I am back again in one piece, as promised.”


“And we are all glad of it,” she assured him, “though I expect Elrond and his lady would have been happy to see you stay on longer.”


“How was the journey?” Thranduil asked, claiming his portion of meat.  “I trust the roads are in good repair.  Did you notice any sign of Orcs in the mountains?”


“Nothing fresh,” Legolas said, passing the salad.  “Just the old scoring I saw the last time.  If there are still Orcs in the mountains, they have gone well and truly underground.”


Thranduil nodded, satisfied with that answer though he knew Legolas had never actually seen fresh Orc sign.  Despite this handicap, his son had become an excellent hunter, and had been thoroughly trained to recognize an Orc’s trail if he saw it.


“And, yes,” Legolas added, “the roads are quite serviceable.”


“Good.”  Thranduil smiled, snatching two biscuits as they went by.  “Now, you obviously had a good time in Imladris, but what we would all like to know is whether you learned anything.”


“It would require several lifetimes to absorb everything in Lord Elrond’s archives,” Legolas said, “but I like to think we made some progress.”


“We should commission copies of the best manuscripts for our collection here,” Lindóriel suggested.


“Perhaps.”  Thranduil had been considering the same thing himself.  Their historical archives were still a bit scanty, reflecting the oral traditions of their subjects.  “It may well be that we would have to commission translations first.”


“Lord Elrond did try to teach us the rudiments of Quenya,” Legolas said, “though I fear we made little progress on that front.”


Thranduil twisted his mouth into a sort of smirk, spearing a forkful of food.  “All the Quenya I ever needed I learned at the shipyards,” he said.  “It was not the most elegant vocabulary, but certainly very useful.  I raised you to speak three languages already; what more could they want?”


“Did Calenmir enjoy himself?” Lindóriel asked.


“I have seldom seen him more excited.  He thinks we should leave the wood more often.”


“And go where?”


“Someday perhaps as far as Mithlond, if you will allow me,” Legolas said, passing the biscuits.  “I would like to see the sea, and the place where you lived for so many years.”


Thranduil frowned slightly.  “That is rather far,” he said, “and would involve passing through Arnor.  Has the situation there improved at all?”


“The kingdom is still divided, but there is no civil war at present.”


Thranduil grunted and took another biscuit.  “Wars should not be undertaken lightly, certainly for greater cause than a prince’s wounded pride.”  His words hung in the air for a moment, but the mood soon passed.  “I will consider it,” he decided.  “Remind me later, and we will discuss the possibility.”


“I will not be wanting to go any time soon,” Legolas assured him.  “I had hoped to be more agreeably occupied for some time.”  He put his fork down and became very serious, though he could not quite suppress a smile.  “Father, I would like your permission to marry.”


Thranduil did not answer at once, merely smiled and shared a significant glance with Lindóriel.  They had been expecting this, but it evoked a stirring of paternal pride nonetheless. 


“You have chosen Lady Linhiriel, I presume,” Thranduil said at last.  He could not have improved upon Legolas’ choice even had he been given the opportunity.  Lorivanneth was a perfect example of a strong and vivacious Sindarin lady, still untouched by grief or hardship.  The ruling families would be bound even closer than they were already, with four of the original Oropherionnath sharing the same grandchildren.  Life seemed to progress very quickly in times of peace.  “You are certainly old enough, though much younger than your mother and I were.  Are you certain you are ready?”


“I believe I am,” Legolas said.  Not even a hint of indecision clouded the confidence on his face.


“Then you know I could never refuse you, and nothing could make us happier.  You have my permission and my blessing.  We could have you betrothed within a month and wed by next spring if it suits you.”


“I certainly have no objection,” Legolas assured him, barely able to contain his growing excitement. 


“So be it,” Thranduil declared jovially, refilling his wine glass.  “Go on, you are excused.  I cannot imagine you are hungry now.  Go tell her the good news.”


“Thank you, Father!”  Legolas was up in an instant, kissed his mother good night and bounded back down the stairs. 


Thranduil sighed, though not unhappily.  “I suppose they cannot be children forever,” he said.


“Our son has not been a child for a very long time,” Lindóriel reminded him, moving the plate of biscuits beyond his reach.  “And you have had enough of those.”


When at last they also rose to leave, Thranduil pulled her close and kissed her gently, but with the same smoldering passion which had fed their love for centuries.  “Thank you,” he said sincerely, “for giving me such a good son.”


Lindóriel responded in kind, drawing him even closer against her, fanning those embers once again to flame.  “I would give you another if you but ask me,” she said, her voice deepening provocatively.


“I am sure you would,” Thranduil agreed, grabbing his wine and leading her upstairs. 


Surely even Thingol in the depths of his gleaming palace had never been so content as Elvenking Thranduil of Greenwood.


 



The day of Legolas’ formal betrothal could not have been more beautiful.  The summer sun shone down on the wood, warming the leaves and filling the air with the scent of green and growing things.  Every balcony in the tree-woven city was hung with the royal colors and crowded with smiling faces.  The ceremony itself took place on the grass below, surrounded by the king’s household and crowds of well-wishers.  Thranduil and Illuiniel presided, as they would at the wedding, closely attended by Lindóriel and Linhir.


Legolas looked every inch a woodland prince, his crown of white gold beech leaves glinting blindingly in the sun.  It was the same Thranduil had worn so many years ago at his own betrothal.  He could still remember that day in all its detail, even now as he felt Oropher’s crown on his brow.  Lorivanneth seemed every bit as happy as Lindóriel had been as she and her prince exchanged their silver rings and the fleeting vows which would hold until their wedding day.  They were obviously very much in love, with no misgivings whatsoever about the future.  For their sakes, Thranduil hoped the idyllic years could continue uninterrupted. 


The feasting and revelry which began afterwards were energetic enough to continue long into the night.  One thing the woodland Elves had always known how to do extremely well was celebrate.  They were merry and carefree people at heart, and an occasion like this was more than enough excuse.  The air was full of music and laughter, dances began and ended with hardly a cue, the whole place alive with the swirl of color and constant motion.


At long last the king and queen extricated themselves from one of those spontaneous dances and retreated to their places beneath the royal canopy for some refreshment.  The heat of the day was beginning to lighten as the afternoon wore on into evening, and that only seemed to breathe new life into the festivities.


“There will be very little work done tomorrow,” Thranduil predicted, filling two small bowls with fruit, and handing one to his wife.


“Least of all by you,” Lindóriel smiled.  “Let them dance as long as they like.  It gladdens my heart to see them enjoying themselves.”


Thranduil sat down beside her and playfully kissed her cheek.  “You make a very compassionate queen, Lin,” he said.


She returned his smile, truly looking the part in her practical woodland gown of subtle green and brown to match his tunic and mantle, every hem adorned with skillful embroidery.  “Our king deserves no less,” she said simply.


The forest continued to reverberate with music, so Thranduil took a bit of a start when Brilthor came upon him unnoticed and touched his shoulder.  “My lord,” he said in a low voice, just loud enough to be heard, “your presence is required in the eyrie.”


Thranduil frowned but did not object, recognizing the urgent tone in the silvan lord’s voice.  They would not call him to the lookout post at a time like this without reason.  Lindóriel looked concerned, but apparently had not quite heard what had been said.


“Stay here,” Thranduil told her.  “I shall return as soon as I can.”


She did not protest, though the shadow which passed across her face implied that she might have considered it.


They walked across the grounds to one of the tallest of the trees at the outskirts of the city.  Thranduil took hold of the rope ladder first, beginning the long climb to the flet nestled into the highest branches.  Dorthaer was already there with the two guards on duty, and they all came to attention when their king at last pulled himself up onto the platform.  Brilthor was not far behind.


“We would not have called you, my lord, but we suspect not all is well along the southern marches,” Dorthaer explained, passing him the glass which magnified even their Elven sight.  “Lord Brilthor thought it best to inform you at once.”


Thranduil took the glass and trained his eyes south, not without some foreboding.  On a very clear day, it was just possible to glimpse the farthest reaches of their wood from their position in the foothills of the mountains.  It was one of those days, and he saw what had concerned them.  It was like a shadow or stain around what should be Amon Lasgalen, a patch of inexplicable darkness as though the wood itself had withered.


“Could it be a blight on the land?” Brilthor asked.


Thranduil passed the glass to him, but declined to give a definite answer.  “It could be many things,” he said at last, a grim suspicion gnawing at his stomach.  Below them the festivities continued unabated.  It would be almost sacrilege to allow this to dampen their spirits today, though he expected there would eventually be no avoiding it.


“Let the celebration continue as planned,” he decided, “but I want an extra perimeter of guards on watch.  Loose the dogs and send scouts to our people in Amon Lasgalen immediately.  I must know what is going on down there.”



Chapter 7 ~ Whispers in the Dark




The rancid stench stung his throat.  His shield arm had begun to ache from holding it aloft so long, his movements constricted by the familiar weight of his leather armor and battle dress.  The air was choked with the roaring of Orcs and an endless hail of black arrows.


He had been here before.  He could remember it in all its horrible detail.  The ranks ahead of them collapsed into a wildly disorganized charge, only to be swallowed by the horde which came pouring out to meet them.


He ran after them.  He knew it was hopeless, but he was powerless to change it.  The barrage of arrows stopped for a moment, but then darkened the sky once again.  He felt the first of many slam through his breastplate and lodge in his shoulder.  A second and third sent pain exploding through his chest as he fell to his knees in the dust.  The Orcs rushed them, but now he was angry, angry enough to drag himself up on at least one foot and bring his sword to bear, impaling the first as it leapt at him.  An arrow tore into his thigh, another into his side, making it difficult to breathe.  He was certain he would be overpowered, but he continued to swing his blade with the desperation of a wounded animal.  A glancing scimitar bit into his side, knocking him down at last.  Orcs swarmed on top of him like rats, crushing him.  Their claws grasped at his arms, but with the last of his strength he tried to heave them off.


“Ai, Thranduil!”


He woke suddenly with a ragged gasp.  The noise and the filth and the stench were gone, leaving only the soft rustling of the woodland night.  Lindóriel was looking down at him, perturbed, struggling to hold him down. 


“What is wrong with you?” she hissed.


The sight of her was such a relief that he could not say anything, but merely pulled her back down beside him and held her close, filling his mind with her touch and her scent in an attempt to overpower the traumas of Mordor.  The memory of the pain was still so raw that his scars ached.


“What is it?” she asked again, plainly concerned.


“Nothing,” he said at last, making a conscious effort to calm his breathing.  “Just a nightmare.”


He was almost afraid to try to sleep again.  There was once no place where he felt more secure than in his own bedroom, but now even that was haunted by the new anxiety over what was festering in the south.  In any case, nothing could be done until morning, and he suspected he would be glad of all the rest he could get.


Mordor.  The long, quiet years had finally begun to calm those lingering fears that it had not been conquered forever.  Now, once again, he could not forget it, a nightmare from which he would never fully wake.


He pulled Lindóriel as close as he could, and buried his face in her hair.


 



Lindóriel lay awake for several hours.  Thranduil never did more than doze for the rest of the night, and he never stopped holding her.  It was a possessive hold, almost as if he were afraid something would take her from him.  She could feel his heart beating against her back, betraying his agitation.  He had suffered this kind of nightmare before, he had told her, but never since their marriage.  That did not bode well.


He had told her about the mysterious blight in the south as soon as they had excused themselves from the feast last night.  They had not had the heart to tell Legolas, but surely rumors would be well-circulated by morning.  Morning would not be long in coming now, she realized, and she suspected Thranduil would be too restless to stay in bed any later than dawn.


She felt him kissing the back of her neck as the first glow of daylight crept over the trees.  She rolled over to face him, still concerned. 


“I worry about you,” she said softly.


“I worry about me, too,” he confided, not without some attempt at humor.  “Just be patient with me, Lin.  I do not know if I could bear the loneliness without you.”


He often said it, but he seemed especially sincere this time.  They had been through so much together already, she could not imagine anything that could drive her from his side.


“You know I would never leave you,” she promised.  “I am your queen, and this is as much my wood as yours.”


He smiled then.  “I do love you.”


A knock at the door interrupted their brief reverie, and Thranduil’s face fell.  “Yes?” he barked.


Gwaelas opened the door but did not pull back the drape out of deference to the queen.  “My lord, a messenger has just arrived from the south,” he said.  “He is most anxious to speak with you.”


Thranduil was out of bed in an instant.  “I shall be down at once,” he said, pulling his clothes out of the wardrobe.  “Tell him to await me downstairs.”


There were very few of their people left in the southernmost reaches of Greenwood, but those who had stayed were among the hardiest and most willful Elves in the forest.  So it was with no small concern that Thranduil noticed how distraught their messenger seemed when he received him in a private audience in the royal hall.  He was in no temper to wait for the other lords to be roused from bed.


“Welcome to our city, Baradhren,” he said gently when he had learned his name, indicating that Gwaelas should bring a chair for him.  “I became aware that not all was well in the south and sent riders of my own only yesterday.  Naturally, I am anxious to hear whatever you can tell me.”


Baradhren gratefully accepted the chair at the foot of the dais.  From his throne, Thranduil could see the travel-worn Elf was a bit saddle sore, and had probably not stopped but for fresh horses along the way.


“My king,” he began at last, “an interloper has built a fortress on the crest of Amon Lanc.  No one has seen him, but he must be a sorcerer, because the evil blight has been spreading since his arrival.  My father, Bregolion, went to challenge his right to establish himself in our wood without gift or leave, but has not returned.”


Thranduil was stunned for a moment.  Bregolion was his governor in the south.  There had been no violence in Greenwood for so long, the thought that his realm had been quietly invaded right under his nose was astounding.  “And he has never declared himself, this sorcerer?” he demanded, growing angry now.


“Never,” Baradhren shook his head, “but his power grows each day, and the wood is quickly becoming an evil place.  In his shadow come spiders of extraordinary size and number, snakes, wargs, Orcs—”


“Orcs?” Thranduil interjected sharply.


“We have abandoned our villages,” Baradhren said, looking desperate, “and we seek your leave to remove north.”


“Yes, yes, yes,” Thranduil said, admittedly distracted by his own roiling thoughts.  “Tell your people to come as far north as you feel you must.  No, you will stay here; you plainly need rest.  I will send riders to every village south of the forest road.  Gwaelas!  Summon Dorthaer immediately, and tell the stablemaster to prepare twenty of the fastest horses.  Lancaeron,” he called to the guard at the door, “rouse the other lords at once, and the prince.  I fear we must call a council of war.”


His first emotion was an acute sense of violation.  If he were younger and more impulsive, he would march on Amon Lanc with his best soldiers to expel this mysterious sorcerer before he could properly entrench himself, but the voice of hard-won experience warned him that any power so brazen could well be more than it seemed.


He was pacing back and forth when two servants arrived with the king’s breakfast on trays.  “Take it to the guest house,” he directed them instead, “and take Master Baradhren with you.  See that he has everything he may need while he stays with us.”  He could not eat now, though he knew he would be ravenous by midday. 


Before he took his leave, Baradhren reached into his courier’s pouch and handed his king a folded piece of paper.  Thranduil accepted it and sent him on his way.


Lindóriel ventured into the hall just as the others were leaving.  “Is it bad news?” she asked, reading his mood.


“It is certainly not good,” Thranduil said.  “I have called the others.  You may stay if you like, love.”


“I shall, thank you.”


At last, Dorthaer appeared in the doorway.  “Prepare twenty couriers at once,” Thranduil directed him, “and I want you and ten of your best men ready to accompany me into the south tomorrow.”


Dorthaer did not look particularly excited by the prospect, but he disappeared at once to do as he was bidden.


While he waited for the rest of the council, Thranduil sat down at the scribe’s table in the corner and quickly wrote out the message he wanted his couriers to bear, namely his permission and encouragement that his subjects remove themselves to whatever place they should deem safe.  There would doubtless be a series of disputes erupting from the confusion, but he would address them later.


Lindóriel simply watched, waiting patiently for an explanation. 


“Ah, Linhir.”  Thranduil looked up as his seneschal was the first to arrive.  “Please get this to your scribes at once before the others arrive.  I need twenty copies immediately.”


“Certainly,” Linhir agreed, though he still looked drowsy.


Alone again with Lindóriel, Thranduil suddenly remembered the paper Baradhren had given him.  He pulled it out and unfolded it, discovering it to be a charcoal drawing.  The strokes were hurried and smudged, but the image was of an evil looking citadel nestled on the crown of Amon Lanc.  A name had been hastily scrawled in the margin, “Dol Guldur.”


“What is that?” Lindóriel demanded.


“I would very much like to ask the same question, love,” Thranduil assured her, taking his seat at the head of the council table.


Galadhmir arrived.  He was closely followed by Anárion and Legolas, and finally Linhir.


Thranduil indicated with a sweep of his hand that they should take their seats as well.  “Good morning,” he said in a grim voice which implied it was quite the opposite.  He pushed the charcoal drawing to the center of the table.  “My lords, and lady, it seems we suddenly have a rather serious problem.”


 



The cat was certainly out of the bag now.  As Thranduil strode across the lawn away from the hall, he could feel eyes upon him.  It was different now; they were frightened, and they expected him to confront the danger.  His friends were also looking at him that way now, and his wife and son.  He wished he had someone to look to, but for the moment he was well and truly alone on that score.  The first thing he must do is see the contamination with his own eyes. 


He climbed the stairs which led into the tree which supported the guest house, usually reserved for visitors of more consequence than woodland messengers.  He knocked softly, just in case Baradhren was sleeping.  He was not, and he was more than a bit taken aback to see the king at his door unescorted.


“May I come in?” Thranduil asked when the other continued to gape at him.


“Yes, yes, of course, my lord.” Baradhren stepped back out of the way with an awkward bow. 


“I thought it only fair to tell you,” Thranduil said, taking a seat and directing Baradhren to the one opposite him, “that my council and I have discussed the matter, and the decision was made that some of us should see what is happening for ourselves.  So, Lord Galadhmir and I will be departing tomorrow with a small force—not an army, mind you.”


Baradhren just nodded, his eyes haunted by that hollow numbness of one who has already seen worse than he had imagined possible.  They had all looked like that after the war.


“I wish I could tell you I was going to raze that monstrosity to its foundations,” Thranduil continued in a more familiar tone, surprising even himself, “but I fear this Dol Guldur may prove to be greater than it would seem.  It may be beyond my power to retrieve your father.”


Baradhren nodded again.  “We did not expect it, my lord,” he confessed.  “Indeed, we hope he is already dead.”


It sounded harsh, but it was understandable.  Some things could indeed be worse than death.


“Do you have a family, Baradhren?”


“I have a wife and son.”


Thranduil smiled.  “So have I,” he said, stating the obvious.  “What I can promise you is that I will do whatever I possibly can to ensure that there is a safe place in this wood for you and your family, wherever that may be.  Is that satisfactory?”


“It is all we can ask, my lord,” Baradhren said, almost managing a smile.


“Very well.  Now, tell me everything I must know to survive this ride to Dol Guldur.”




Chapter 8 ~ Whispers in the Dark II




The gradual influx of displaced Elves had already begun to disrupt the daily routines of all the villages they passed through.  The king’s presence, however brief, helped calm their fears for a time.  They were heartened to know their king was taking serious notice of their plight and intended to do something about it.  Privately, Thranduil hoped he appeared more confident than he felt.


They traveled at a brisk pace, mounted on strong woodland horses which would make easy work of the more than seventy leagues between them and the southern marches.  All thirteen of them were dressed in sturdy hunter’s tunics, armed with bow and blade as well as two of Thranduil’s great wolf hounds.  By all accounts, there would be more than enough hateful creatures in their path to warrant extra caution.


It was south of the narrows on the afternoon of the third day that the aspect of the wood began to change for the worse.  The trees had begun to wither, and their leaves were strung with webs.  Thranduil stopped his horse for a moment and tied his hair back before venturing farther beneath that ghostly canopy.  Just the sight of it made his skin crawl.


They continued at a more cautious pace.  The road was still clear enough, but the trees on either side gradually seemed more malevolent, and in a year or two the whole path would likely be overgrown.  The green things that had thrived in the wood for centuries still tried to unfurl their leaves, but they were sickly and choked with thorns. 


No one spoke.  The air was heavy in the summer heat, and there were very few sounds at all.  A carrion bird called down at them, almost as if warning them away.  There were no more songbirds, only dry web-bound carcasses hanging overhead.


The sudden rustling of a squirrel leaving its drey drew their eyes upward at once.  It was a strange comfort to see something so common in that eerie landscape, but the thin branch snapped and dropped the hapless creature into a web.  A black spider as large as a cat darted out and immediately rolled it into a silken cocoon, silencing its cries forever.


The Elves sat rooted in place, horror-stricken.


“I am not spending a night here,” Galadhmir hissed.  


They continued slowly forward for another hour.  The deeper they went, the plainer the indications became.  Thranduil’s every sense was prickling with the danger of the place, the brooding malice.  Even the horses were uncomfortable.  He wanted to see Dol Guldur, but he began to doubt they would be able to make it that far.  He sniffed the air and glanced at his brother.  “Galadh,” he said grimly, “what does that smell like?”


Galadhmir frowned as though he had been trying not to notice, but he obligingly drew a few deep breaths.  “Like Mordor,” he decided. 


Thranduil nodded.  “And that,” he said, meaning the brooding malice weighing invisibly upon all of them.  “What does that feel like?”


“Feels like Mordor,” Galadhmir said again, growing more unsettled. 


After another few hours, it was becoming too much for even the strongest among them.


“My lords,” Dorthaer ventured at last, “it is not safe here.”


They were all thoroughly unnerved.  The shadows had deepened into evening, and there were strange cries in the air.


“We shall not stay much longer,” Thranduil promised them darkly.  “I have seen all I need to see.”


Directly ahead of them stood an especially gnarled tree in the gloom.  Thranduil reined his horse to a halt, suddenly suspicious.  Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but the bark seemed to have moved.  He dismounted, picked up a small stone and threw it at the trunk.


Galadhmir choked, and a collective shudder of disgust shook the company.  The entire tree was alive with spider hatchlings, each as large as a fist.  They roiled for a moment, but did not leave their nest site.


“Unbelievable,” Thranduil growled.  “And there is Orc sign,” he said, pointing to the tracks along the path.  “Ai, not again, not here!”


A heavy scuffling in the brush truncated his tirade.  Thranduil seized his bow just as a spider the size of a pony reared up on the path ahead of them, hissing and waving them away from her young.


The next moment she was pierced by thirteen arrows, thrashing on her back.


“Ai, Belain!” Galadhmir seethed as they backed away from the violence of her death throes.  “We should never have come this far!”


“I will not argue that,” Thranduil agreed, making a grab for his horse, but he came up short as he heard a kindred cry.  The look on Galadhmir’s face made it evident that he had heard it, too.  Indeed, they had all heard it.


“Stay with the horses!” Thranduil commanded his brother.  “Dorthaer, dismount and come with me!”


There was no time for any of them to object.  Drawing his sword, Thranduil leapt into the brake with the dogs, pulling away from the thorns which grabbed at his sleeves.  Dorthaer came close behind.  They beat away the webs as best they could, following the tortured cries.  There were no words, but Thranduil knew an Elvish voice when he heard it.


They stopped for a moment, panting, glancing around a haunted-looking glade.


“Perhaps it was a contrivance of the necromancer,” Dorthaer suggested, obviously wanting no part of this chase.  “You should not separate yourself, sire!”


Thranduil only held up a hand to silence him.  Now the air was filled with the strident howling of wargs, also drawn to the sounds of distress.  “Find him,” he commanded the hounds.


They plunged only a few steps deeper into the wood before they came upon the limp form.


“Ai, Fanuilos!” Thranduil exclaimed, sheathing his blade and gathering the mutilated Elf into his arms at once.  “I think it is Bregolion!  Go, go, go!”


They ran back in the direction they had come, though now there were wargs on their heels.  Behind him, Thranduil heard Dorthaer curse in pain but they did not stop running.  A terrible howl split the night just as they spilled back onto the path.


The ten mounted Guardsmen immediately formed a protective ring around their king as Thranduil leapt astride and Dorthaer helped him set what was left of Bregolion in front of him.  Then they turned and headed north at a mad gallop.


The horses needed no encouragement, and they thundered up the path.  With one arm clutching the deadweight in front of him and the other holding the reins, Thranduil found himself with no ready weapon but speed.  The cacophony of yelps and howls told him the wargs were dangerously close, yet were feeling the bite of Elvish arrows.


Without lowering his eyes, Thranduil whipped the ends of the reins into a knot and dropped them; the horse knew the way out.  He could not reach his sword, but drew the dagger from his quiver. 


A frothing warg was running alongside him.  His panicked horse strove for even greater speed, but could not outrun it.  Sparing all the attention he could, Thranduil met that predatory gaze, holding his dagger ready and waiting for it to pounce.  It never did.  Instead, a familiar mocking laughter echoed through his mind before the beast slowed and gave up the chase.


He was jolted back to the simple task of remaining mounted as his horse vaulted over a ravine.  On the other side, Thranduil pulled them to a bone-jarring halt, though the stallion seemed to have no interest whatsoever in slowing yet.  They had emerged into the uncorrupted wood at last, and the others were not far behind.  Thranduil wheeled his horse around and brought it to stand at the edge of the ravine as the rest of them crossed.  As he suspected, the wargs were reluctant to follow them beyond the reaches of the shadow just yet.  They stood frothing and snapping on the opposite bank, but a last volley of arrows silenced them. 


“Are we all accounted for?” Thranduil asked at once.  Galadhmir was unscathed, but shaken.  Three Guardsmen had sustained superficial wounds, but the other seven were unhurt.  Dorthaer sounded weak in the darkness, but claimed he was all right.   


The nearest village was an hour's ride north if they hurried.  Bregolion was moaning like a madman, and the sooner he had the attention of a healer the better.


Dorthaer blew his horn as they approached, and the people came out with lanterns to meet them.  Bregolion’s condition was truly shocking, and he was carried away at once.  The others who needed any immediate attention followed, Thranduil among them, not only out of concern for his company, but because the local healer had insisted when he had noticed the small bloodstains slowly spreading over the king’s sleeve.


Once inside the house, the healer began by tying Bregolion’s wrists and ankles to the table with soft cords while his assistants tended the others’ cuts and abrasions.  Thranduil paid no attention as his own minor wounds were dressed, but rather watched the master work.  In the light, the true extent of the Necromancer’s handiwork was revealed, and it was deeply disturbing.  The fingers of Bregolion’s left hand seemed to have been chewed off.  His entire body had been severely beaten and branded with many evil signs.  Worst, his eyes had been burnt out, likely with hot irons, leaving only bloody sockets.  He was plainly not lucid, perhaps a blessing under the circumstances. 


A mixture of pity and grave apprehension clouded the healer’s face as he applied salve to the burns and bandaged the open wounds, mercifully wrapping the sightless eyes.  He kept glancing at Thranduil and then quickly away again.  Was he looking for answers?  Reassurance?  Some sign that his king was equal this new terror?  Thranduil had never felt the burden of his responsibility to these people so keenly as he did now.


The cuts the thorns had left on his arm seemed harmless enough, though they were red and irritated.  They were dressed with a green oil and beeswax salve and bandaged, but as he rolled down his sleeve and refastened his vambrace, Thranduil noticed Dorthaer had unexpectedly taken a turn for the worse.


“What happened?” he demanded.  The captain of his Guard was suddenly flushed and his eyes glassy.


“He has been bitten by the spiders, my lord,” the apprentice healer explained, removing the compress to reveal two swollen puncture wounds on Dorthaer’s neck.  “The venom has never proven fatal from a bite of this size, but he will be ill for a time.”


Thranduil sat back again, more exasperated than tired.  His idyllic world was quickly unraveling.  They were all looking at him, looking for some shred of hope.  Now that he had seen their troubles, what would he do?  What could he do?


Lord Galadhmir appeared in the doorway.  Everyone acknowledged him and then returned to their duties.  “The others have been settled,” he said.  “They wished to be certain you were not seriously injured.”


“It is but a scratch,” Thranduil said, truthfully.  “Not all of us were so fortunate.”


They were delayed there for several days while Dorthaer recovered his strength.  Whether Bregolion would recover at all remained to be seen.  None could guess whether the damage done to his mind could be righted.  Because he would have otherwise been inquiring after him at every moment, Thranduil spent a great deal of time at his bedside in the healer’s house.  Perhaps it was an outlet for his frustration at his inability to do anything else, or perhaps it was because he felt some measure of personal responsibility for him.  It required uncommon courage to approach that haunted citadel, as he well knew.


Bregolion had quieted by the second day and no longer thrashed when he was touched.  Thranduil tried to encourage this by simply holding his uninjured hand for hours at a time, talking to him, singing, doing whatever he could to reach the spark of sanity he felt sure lingered in that tortured mind, to assure him that he was once again surrounded by care and compassion.  The sound of his voice seemed to have at least a deeply calming effect, which seemed promising. 


“I wonder that he is even still alive,” Galadhmir said bleakly on the fourth day.


“I believe he wants to live,” Thranduil replied, changing a compress on a particularly vicious burn.  “Somewhere deep inside he must have much to live for.”


Galadhmir was silent for a moment, looking down at Bregolion’s ruined body with sympathetic discomfort.  “I hope we may all prove to have such courage,” he said.


Thranduil looked up at him, sharing the same gnawing disquiet.  “Indeed.”


He was suddenly distracted as he detected movement in that hand which had been limp so long.  Thranduil shared an anxious glance with Galadhmir.  “Bregolion?”  He called him directly in as conversational a voice as he could.  “We have all been quite concerned about you.”


Bregolion’s hand tightened around Thranduil’s own, then weakly wandered up to touch the king's face.


“My lord?” he whispered at last, as though hardly daring to believe it was not simply a cruel dream.  “How did you find me?”


“By happy accident,” Thranduil said, unable to stop a smile spreading beneath Bregolion’s fingertips.  “I believe you heard our voices and called to us, as best you could.  But we must take you back with us soon.  Your family has all but despaired of you.”



Chapter 9 ~ Whispers in the Dark III




It took another six days for them to return to Galadhremmen Lasgalen, traveling at a slower pace for the sake of their wounded.  Dorthaer steadily regained his strength after being miserably ill for several days.  Thranduil realized it would probably be prudent to acquire some of that spider venom for Noruvion in the hope that he could devise an antidote.  Unfortunately, the king had no encouraging news for his people as he returned to the north.  He could only remind them that they were permitted and indeed strongly encouraged to remove themselves from the shadow’s path.


Thranduil’s mind had been steadily churning since their narrow escape from the corrupted forest, now commonly being called Mirkwood.  They rode in silence, allowing him to think.  There was so much to be done, yet he did not know if any of it would much avail them.  He would have a great deal to discuss with the others.


Galadhmir rode beside him, leading Bregolion’s horse by the reins.  Now and then, Thranduil could feel him looking at him the same way the healer had done, looking for reassurance.  They had been the best of friends ever since they had been young in Menegroth, and together they had experienced more than even their kind could expect in a lifetime.  Thranduil did not feel young anymore.  He felt worn, inadequate. 


He was not yet certain how he would counter this enemy’s advance.  Doriath had stood invulnerable inside the enchantments of Melian, yet had crumbled so easily after that protection was withdrawn.  The location of the Three Elven Rings of Celebrimbor was a closely guarded secret, but even a simpleton could recognize their influence at least in Imladris.  What would protect Eryn Galen?  Everyone was looking to him, but he did not know whether he could answer.


Despite these gloomy thoughts, Thranduil could not manage to despair so long as Bregolion bravely sat upon his horse regardless of the pain it must be causing him, grasping the mane with his remaining fingers and wearing a linen bandage over his burnt eyes.  Tortured and turned out to the mercy of the Necromancer’s beasts, many others would have already forsaken their lives.  Thranduil recognized in him the same indomitable resilience he had seen in Gwaelas, the same will to endure that Sauron had failed to appreciate.  It could be that they would need every ounce of that strength before long.


Rumor traveled more quickly than they did, so when at last they did reach the city Bregolion’s family rushed out to receive him with tears and kisses.  Baradhren and his mother thanked their king profusely for rescuing him against all hope, though his condition obviously grieved them.  Thranduil accepted their thanks with good grace, though there was only one face he was truly anxious to see.


Lindóriel was waiting for them at the foot of the stairs as he and Galadhmir arrived at the King’s House.  Worn, saddle sore, and conscious only of how much he wanted to spare her the dark times ahead, Thranduil unceremoniously put his arms about her and held her close.  Surprised, she accepted his embrace without reservation, though he felt her stiffen.  She could read his mood and knew the news was not good.


“Galadhmir,” Thranduil said at last, still unwilling to let her go, “tell the others we will meet here in an hour.”


“Of course.”  Galadhmir sounded equally tense, no doubt eager to see his own wife.


“Come,” Lindóriel said, pulling away and leading him up the stairs to their rooms.  “Tell me what happened.  Was it as terrible as you feared?”


“It was worse,” Thranduil said miserably.  “We could not safely approach even as near as the valley.  Dorthaer was bitten by a spider which had him vomiting for days, and we were set upon by wargs.  It was only by some miracle that we recovered Bregolion.”


“That alone makes the journey worthwhile,” she insisted, ushering him inside and closing the door after him.  “Did you discover any means by which to stop the blight spreading?”


“I do not know that it can be stopped,” he admitted, unfastening his vambraces and the front of his jerkin as she selected clean clothes from the wardrobe.  “It is obviously the work of some foul power, and at this pace it will be at our doorstep within a few years.”  He stopped talking for a moment as he sank down to sit on the bed, lost in his own unpleasant memories and imaginings.  As if on cue, his scalp began to itch at the mere thought of what was crawling through the wood.


Lindóriel caught his hand to stop his scratching, sat down beside him and began to untwine his warrior’s plaits with her skillful fingers.  Thranduil did not object; her attentions were soothing after the stress of the trip.  Just her presence was itself a welcome relief, though it did little to distract him from his gnawing cares.  Everything was still as it should be here in his house amid the trees, but he could not forget the shadow looming outside, encroaching ever nearer.  When she had finished loosing his hair, he leaned over to rest his head on her shoulder.


“What happened, Lin?” he asked pitifully.  “Our perfect world is crumbling.”


“Perhaps it has always been too perfect to last,” she said with a note of keen regret as she put her arm around his shoulders.  “It is foolish of us, I suppose, to always expect that evil has at last been conquered forever.  It has never been true, yet we dare to hope that enough blood has been spilt, enough life lost, enough damage done to ransom this world once and for all.”


“I knew Mordor had not breathed its last, but I did not expect it to take root in our wood.”


“Unfortunately for us, it has.  What are you going to do about it?”


Thranduil was momentarily at a loss.  “I do not know,” he admitted, sitting upright again.  “Lin, I do not know.  I know how to command an army, but this necromancy is the sort which darkened the Elder Days.  Who am I in the face of that?”


Lindóriel stiffened again, offended by the question.  “You are one of the Meliannath of Doriath,” she said proudly, “a kinsman of Elu Thingol and the grandson of Thoron Dúthalion.  You are Elvenking Thranduil Thalion Oropherion, and you have ruled this wood for a thousand years.  You will not be unseated by a craven necromancer who dares not even declare himself.”


Despite his lingering doubts, Thranduil had to admit that her vehemence stirred something in his heart.  “Your confidence honors me, my lady,” he said wryly.  “You truly believe I can succeed in this?”


“I believe you will succeed because you have no choice,” Lindóriel said gravely.  “Your greatest strengths have always been revealed when your hand is forced.  But you are by no means alone.  We are here because you chose us, and we have freely bound ourselves to your fate.  You will never face an enemy alone while we live.”


It was true.  Though he had never doubted their resolve, Thranduil was touched to hear her declare it.  The Oropherionnath had already faced all the worst trials of their lives together.  He could scarcely remember a time without them.


Gratefully, he pulled her close and kissed her, drawing strength simply from her touch.  Lindóriel returned his affections with equal ardor, letting him know she had missed him over the past days as sorely as he had missed her.  He was undeservedly fortunate to have such devoted friends, such a peerless wife.  She smelled like roses, and her perfect skin was soft beneath his lips, yet regardless of her beauty Thranduil knew he could never find a truer companion with whom to share his life.  She knew him in his entirety, every weakness and failing, yet gave him only love in return. 


At long last, and yet entirely too soon, Lindóriel gently pulled away.  Thranduil found he had absolutely no desire to leave that room for the remainder of the day, nor to face any of the troubles which awaited him downstairs.  But it was no use pleading with her.  His queen would hold him to his duty.


“I love you,” he said, finding the words entirely inadequate.  “If you were the only Elf in this wood, my lady, I would defend it for your sake.”


“And I would never leave it without you, though it all turned to darkness,” she said, kissing him once more before handing him some folded clothes.  “Now, go make yourself presentable.  It will not do for the king to be late to his own council.”


 



The lords assembled in the King’s Hall as requested.  They found Thranduil already seated in his imposing chair at the head of the table, pouring over maps and making copious notes for himself.


Legolas slipped into his place, the first at his father’s right.  Thranduil could tell by his cheerless expression that his son had also guessed the gravity of the situation.  Linhir, Galadhmir, and Anárion took their seats on either side, while Brilthor, the silvan chieftain, sat at the end opposite the king. 


“As time is suddenly of the essence,” Thranduil began grimly, setting down his quill, “I shall not bore you with unnecessary pleasantries.  “The state of Amon Lanc and the surrounding wood is so far gone already that any attempt to reclaim it would exact a price too great for me to countenance.  Moreover, while the identity of this meddlesome necromancer remains unknown to us, we necessarily run the risk of underestimating his strength and rushing headlong into a disaster we can ill afford.  We shall not provoke him yet, and any action taken against him will be purely defensive until I should decide otherwise.  This is not open for discussion.”


The lords shifted in their seats, but did not oppose him.  It was indeed galling to admit that so insidious an evil had gained a solid foothold in their wood while they were looking the other way, but he had no intention of compounding that mistake with unnecessary bloodshed.


“What is worse,” Thranduil continued, selecting a map of the northern marches, “the corruption of Dol Guldur is by no means contained.  It continues to spread northward, and I believe should now be considered a threat to the entire wood.  As loath as I am to say it, we should consider moving ourselves to a more defensible position.”


“Have we not already moved ourselves quite enough?” Linhir protested immediately.


“It is rather tiresome,” Thranduil admitted, “but I would not suggest it if I did not believe it to be a great risk to stay here.”


“Where do you intend to go?” Brilthor asked calmly.


“Anywhere north of the mountains,” Thranduil said, pushing the map to the center of the table.  “I am prepared to hear whatever suggestions you have to offer.”


“Besides the benefit offered by the mountains, there are very few places in the north any more defensible than our homes here,” Anárion observed.  “Amon Lasgalen would have been the obvious choice.”


Galadhmir frowned.  “Unfortunately, the Necromancer has already recognized the benefit of that terrain.”


“The choice itself depends greatly upon the sort of fortifications we expect to construct,” Linhir said, “and whether it would provide defensible access to water.”


“The ridge where the river forks may be a possibility.”


“The east hills are a better one,” Legolas said, very decidedly. 


“The storehouses?”  Brilthor seemed incredulous.


“Precisely,” Legolas said, looking to his elders for support.  “The caverns are already there, and the river runs directly beneath the hills.  The Mithrim have lived beneath the ground before, have they not?”


Thranduil carefully considered the possibility before he spoke.  The mysterious caves beneath the hills on their northeastern border had thus far been used only for winter storage.  The place would need to be expanded considerably before they could even consider attempting to live there, and it would certainly never be Menegroth, but it was very advantageously situated.


“I agree,” he said at last.  “So long as we do not know the identity of our enemy, we might as well prepare for the worst.  Are there any strenuous objections?”


No one looked particularly pleased, but no one sought to argue.


“Very well,” Thranduil said, collecting the map and folding it once again.  “Linhir, I want our most capable architects sent there at once to investigate the site and inform me of what it will require to make those caverns a proper home.  In the meantime, I shall write to Luinlas about doubling the strength of the army.”  Before continuing, Thranduil leaned aside to his son.  “Legolas, would you summon Bregolion, please?”


Thranduil had sent advance warning to the broken Elf’s family, so it was only a matter of moments before Legolas returned, followed by Bregolion and his wife, who led him gently by the hand.


“Beyond all hope, we have managed to recover one of our own who has already been a prisoner of the Necromancer,” Thranduil introduced him, though he imagined they already knew who he was.  “Bregolion has agreed to tell us all he can about his imprisonment in the hope that it may be of some use to us.”


“I regret that I can tell you nothing of the interior of Dol Guldur, my lords,” Bregolion apologized.  “I was set upon as soon as I approached, and not long afterwards they took my eyes.”


“That would have been of little matter,” Thranduil assured him.  “You need not detail your trials here if it pains you.  Tell us what you heard.”


“There was little enough of any consequence to hear, for it seemed I was kept only by Orcs who knew and cared for nothing beyond their dungeon.”  He paused for a moment, obviously choosing not to disclose the many unspeakable abuses he must have suffered at their hands.  “There was one other.  He claimed not to be the Necromancer, but merely his mouthpiece.  Before they drove me mad, I still had sense enough to protest that our lord the king would never allow their cruelty to continue in our wood.”


Feeling a stab of shame and frustration at his inability to make good on that threat, Thranduil resisted the urge to shift in his seat.  “Did he answer?” he asked instead.


Bregolion swallowed, apparently regretting the words he had to repeat.  “He laughed and said, ‘Oropherion troubles me not at all.  I have witnessed the rise and fall of many realms, and was called cruel before the rising of the moon.  Your king excels not in saving lives, but in lamenting them.’”


Thranduil felt the blood drain from his face.  His eyes lost their focus, and he could hear nothing but the thunderous beating of his own heart.


“Did he ever reveal his name?” Galadhmir asked.


Bregolion shook his head.  “I can remember no more.”


Thranduil recovered himself enough to dismiss Bregolion with thanks and he left the hall to find what solace he could with his family.  It seemed his sufferings had not been in vain.


Thranduil found Legolas looking at him with obvious concern.  He forced himself to master the initial rush of panic as he realized the situation he was facing.


“It need not necessarily be him,” Galadhmir hissed, well acquainted now with the details of Thranduil’s encounter with Annatar, reading his fears immediately.  “It may yet be one of the wraiths.”


“Those were his exact words to me,” Thranduil insisted.


“Perhaps it is merely coincidence,” Anárion suggested.  “Bregolion’s memory may not be entirely reliable, considering his torments.”


“Perhaps you would like to call him a liar to what remains of his face,” Thranduil returned bitterly.  “How could he have fabricated something so precise?”


“Regardless,” Linhir insisted, attempting to stem the pointless argument, “the questionable identity of the Necromancer does not in any way change our plans, correct?”


“Indeed, it does not.”  Thranduil pulled himself together, knowing that panic was a luxury he could not afford in this game they were suddenly playing.  “Everyone to your duties, and report to me often.  I want to know what is being done, where, and by whom.  A great deal of work lies ahead of us.”




Chapter 10 ~ Whispers in the Dark IV




“This passage leads directly into the deepest chamber,” Galasrinion explained, guiding his small boat toward the mouth of the cave with expert hands.  “The ceiling is quite low at first, so please mind your heads, my lords.”


Thranduil and Legolas followed in their own boats.  The ceiling was indeed quite low, and for several feet they were obliged to bend almost double over their paddles.  Eventually the cavern widened to reveal a torchlit chamber through which the river had cut a wide path for itself.


Following Galasrinion’s lead, the king and the prince guided their boats to a makeshift landing and climbed ashore.  They were joined there by Galasrinion’s wife, Arameleth, his partner in more than simply domestic life.  Together they were the most innovative team of architects Greenwood could boast.


“Welcome, my lords,” she said with a quick bow to them both.  “Welcome to Arthrand Lasgalen!  At least, we hope that in time it will be worthy of the name.”


“As do I, my lady,” Thranduil said pleasantly.  “Show me what you have planned for this room.”


On a work table nearby lay sheaves of completed plans and conceptional drawings.  Arameleth eagerly selected the one which showed an elaborate design for a network of cellars and laid it in Thranduil’s hands.


“As you can see,” Galasrinion explained, “the original stonework can still be identified beneath all the new formations.  We intend to incorporate and expand upon the work which has already been done lest we compromise the structure of the entire cavern system.”


“Yes, I see,” Thranduil said, distracted.  Gazing up at the ceiling, he could indeed see the crude but effective stonework of the ancient craftsmen.  The sheer passage of time had obscured it beneath innumerable growths of new rock, hanging from the ceiling and cluttering the floor like stony weeds.  The origin of this place would likely remain a mystery, but as a fortress it would serve his purposes perfectly.


“It is rather difficult to see your vision now,” he admitted.  “If you two can implement this design, you will have proven your worth ten times over.”


“There will be a system of storage rooms on this side of the river channel,” Galasrinion explained, beaming with pride, “and enough room for workmen on the other.”


“And, naturally, a portcullis at each end,” Arameleth added, “to secure the waterway.”


From there Galasrinion led them up a rugged incline into the next grouping of chambers, Arameleth following with an armful of papers.  “That slope will soon be hewn into proper stairs, my lords,” he apologized.


The size of the room they now entered was truly impressive.  The small flickering torches placed along the walls gave enough light to reveal a huge area, a maze of natural rock formations comprised of many different levels and side chambers all feeding into one central space with a high ceiling.  It was a commanding view. 


“We imagined this to be the royal hall,” Galasrinion said, as Arameleth handed the king another drawing.  “It is connected to a large tunnel leading to the southern face of the hillside where I propose we construct the main gate.”


The glimpse Arameleth’s drawing offered was of an enormous hall supported by pillars of living stone and bathed in golden firelight.  A raised dais set with three thrones stood at the far end.  Long tables were arranged in several of the chambers, everything joined by stairways carved out of the sloping floor.


“Quite impressive,” Thranduil said, looking up and imagining all the extraneous rock removed.  It would reflect the simple grandeur of his woodland realm, charmingly asymmetrical due to the placement of the natural pillars.


On the far right side of the enormous hall, Galasrinion led them along a passage which led to more domestic chambers.  A fissure in the wall revealed even more uncharted spaces which would be available later if they found they had need to expand.  Similar chambers located off the far left side of the hall had been designated for various purposes, such as the armory, the treasury, the library, and the like.


Finally, they were led down the main corridor to the cave’s mouth in the hillside.  It was not especially large, but the master architects had already drawn up plans for an impressive and apparently impregnable gate system which would require widening the opening.  A wooden bridge would be built to span the river, sturdy enough to endure vigorous use, yet easily destroyed in case of emergency.


“I cannot see how I could improve upon your design,” Thranduil told them, genuinely pleased.  “I can only hope you begin work soon.”


“We have waited only for your approval, my lord,” Arameleth said with a smile.


“You have it, unreservedly,” Thranduil assured her.  “I understand it will be some years yet before the details may be completed, but please see to the essential functions of the place before all else.  We shall not leave Galasremmen Lasgalen unless we are forced prematurely, but in that event, I would like our home beneath the hill to be ready at least to shelter us.”


“As you wish, my lord.”


“I eagerly await news of your progress.”


They stayed that night in the nearby village which had been hastily constructed to accommodate the small army of workers and craftsmen who would begin chiseling away the interior of the caverns.  A modest pavilion had been thrown up for the king and the prince, and the Wood-elves ungrudgingly offered their best provisions.  Those included the two large fish standing against an open fire on spits of green oak. 


Seated on a tree stump at the fireside, Thranduil looked up to find Legolas gazing absently into the dancing flames.  “You have been very quiet,” he observed.  “I would ask what troubles you were it not so obvious.”


Legolas immediately stopped turning the small silver ring on his finger.  He looked cross and preoccupied, which was very unlike him.  He had reason enough.


Thranduil felt a sympathetic pang for his son.  The wedding had been postponed indefinitely while the specter of Dol Guldur darkened everyone’s thoughts.  It was not the custom of the Elves to wed in dark times except at last resort.  A veteran of that interior battle himself, Thranduil could well understand his indecision.


“What would you do in my position?” Legolas asked abruptly, as though it had been building for some time.  “I appreciate that you have kept a respectful distance during this whole courtship, but I am asking you now.  Please, tell me what you would do.”


“Now, that is a difficult question,” Thranduil warned him, turning the fish.  “In your position, at your age and with your experience, I know what I would have done.  I know what I did.  It is not every day that one takes a wife, and I felt I had to wait for that perfect time when the stars were aligned and the world was at peace lest any hint of hardship mar our happiness.  But I cannot deny that it sickens my heart when I think of all the wasted years your mother and I might otherwise have spent together.”


“Would you do the same if you had it to do again?” Legolas asked.


“Knowing what I knew then, I probably would,” Thranduil admitted.  “But had I known what I know now . . .”  He trailed away, imagining the possibility.  “It was easier at the time to blame Sauron simply for existing, but it was my own choice.  By the time I realized what had happened, I had allowed him to take a thousand years from us.  If we could anticipate what the next few centuries hold, perhaps we would be acting differently now.  Unfortunately, guessing the future is a dangerous game.”


“Would you suggest then that I err on the side of caution?”


“There is a certain wisdom in taking the prudent course,” Thranduil agreed, “but there is also much to be said for not living in fear.”


Legolas sighed, exasperated.  “Father, you have still not managed to answer my question.”


Thranduil smiled wryly, though to some extent he shared the same discontent.  “I know.  In the end, I fear I have no satisfactory answer to give you.  Ultimately, it is for you and Lorivanneth to decide whether your happiness now is worth the risk later.”


“What risks are there to consider, really?” Legolas demanded.  “That our lives might not be perfect?”


Thranduil found that a ready answer did not at once spring to mind.  “When at last you cut to the heart of it,” he decided, “there are no trials a strong marriage cannot weather.  But do not be so quick to dismiss the hardships this world may yet have in store for you, Legolas.  Thus far, your life has been perfect.  When you are wed, you are wed once for all time, and that bond should not be attempted while you have neither the time nor the attention to discern it properly.”


An awkward silence fell for a moment.  Thranduil had not intended to start lecturing his son at a time like this, but he could not help feeling deeply concerned for him.  His entire future hung in the balance.  He had never known war of any kind, that last vestige of his youth spared until now.  Thranduil could not bear the thought of Legolas losing a child or his spouse to Sauron’s ravages, as so many of them had already, but he knew he could not protect him forever.


“Speak to Lorivanneth,” he said gently.  “Speak to her father.  Linhir also knows a thing or two about the ugly side of life.”


“I was ready to wed her last year before any of this happened,” Legolas said miserably.  “Why should that have changed?”


“It need not have changed at all,” Thranduil assured him.  “Just speak to her.  If the two of you decide you are better prepared to face the prospect of this life together,” he said, indicating the looming shadow of the cavernous fortress behind them, “I shall not presume to think otherwise.”





Chapter 11 ~ Whispers in the Dark V




The next year passed agonizingly slowly for those who simply watched and waited for the malevolent shadows to advance farther north.  It was difficult to think of anything else.  There were very few, however, who did not have extra duties to occupy them.  The king had begun an ambitious reorganization of almost every level of their society as soon as he had returned from the Dol Guldur.


The army had been reassembled and rearmed, thickly posted in rotating shifts of border guards and patrols.  All those of an eligible age who had not yet served in a military capacity had begun their training, without exception.  Upon request, Lord Elrond of Imladris graciously allowed his kinsman in Eryn Galen to commission the services of his best swordsmiths, and they had begun to share their skills with those of the silvan craftsmen who wished to learn.  The fletchers and bowyers also had constant employment.  The tanners and leatherworkers were hard-pressed to meet the demand for the armor the soldiers required.  Everyone who could otherwise be spared lent their energies to the transformation of the caverns.  Displaced residents from the south continued to arrive and were sent across the mountains.  Those nearest the king had begun to realize the toll the stress was taking, none more so than the queen.


Lindóriel opened her eyes in the darkness.  Beside her, Thranduil had begun to writhe in his sleep.  He was dreaming again, and his dreams were rarely pleasant.


Indulging in several hours of proper sleep each night may be a luxury they would have to forego in the future.  Thranduil had scarcely closed his eyes for several weeks, driven incessantly by an almost manic energy, and it had only been at her insistence that he had come to bed at all.  But even now it seemed he could have no rest.


Gently, Lindóriel put her arms around him.  She was usually able to quiet his nightmares with little more than a touch, but this one was tenacious.  She could feel his body quivering against hers, every muscle tensed, his breathing shallow and ragged.  She caressed his brow, but he flinched away as if in real pain. 


Growing more concerned, Lindóriel sat up and noticed the room was unnaturally cold for a late summer’s night.  Her skin prickled, and the hounds in the corner began to whine.  Recognizing an unfamiliar and malevolent presence among them, she pulled her husband onto his back and tried to shake him awake.  Something was very wrong.  “Thranduil,” she called, trying to be firm but unable to keep the fear out of her voice.  “Thranduil!”


Before she could call anyone else, Legolas, Galadhmir, or even Gwaelas, Thranduil suddenly and violently arched his back.  His ragged breathing became more like the growl of a cornered animal, and he flung himself out of bed, landing with a crash on the floor.


Everything was quiet again.  Lindóriel was immediately crouched beside him, but Thranduil held up a hand to assure her he was all right.  He was awake now, though obviously shaken.  Then he stood and stalked out onto the southern balcony.


The stars were obscured by a brewing storm, and the dark clouds rumbled overhead.  Lindóriel pulled on her robe and joined him there in the open air, still quite concerned.  “What happened?” she asked, gently demanding an answer.


Thranduil cursed under his breath.  “It is him,” he said at last, his hands white-knuckled on the railing.  He looked as though he would be sick.  “I know it is him.”  He drew a deep breath, then another, and another, until she seized his arm to calm him.


Recovering himself for the moment, Thranduil pulled her closer and she wrapped her arms around him.  She could not blame him for being anxious.  The thought that Sauron himself had now trained his eye on them chilled her heart, and doubtless it had whipped Thranduil’s paternal instincts into a frenzy.  Gorthaur the Cruel had terrorized Beleriand with his foul creatures, lain waste to Eregion, ruined Númenor, and bled Eryn Galen of half its strength once already at the turn of the Age.  Despite all her protestations to the contrary, this foe was greater than all of them combined and Thranduil knew it.  He was starting to panic now.


“Should you send word to the others?” she whispered.


“I have no proof for them,” he said miserably.  “I have nothing but my own conviction, and I doubt that would be sufficient for Galadriel or even Elrond.”


“Surely they would recognize him as well.  You told me they were not taken in while he styled himself as Annatar.”


He seemed to ponder that for a moment.  “Perhaps,” he admitted.


She continued to hold him, determined to do whatever she could to strengthen the resolve he so desperately needed to maintain.  He had eventually told her everything he could remember about the devastation of Mordor in an effort to stop those memories from festering.  The reality that their beloved wood was becoming a twisted manifestation of that black land was a nightmare they could not wake from.


She led him back to bed as the first drops of rain began to fall, though she doubted he would dare to sleep any more that night.  He nestled close to her beneath the sheets, almost as if in a futile attempt to escape or ignore the brooding gaze of Dol Guldur.


It was not long before he sat up again, too restless to be still.  “It is those damned rings!” he hissed.  “I knew this would happen.  It became inevitable the moment we all decided we were too sunk in our own grief to force Isildur to give up his prize.  How many times do we have to fight the same damned war?”


Lindóriel let him rant, relieved that he was angry now.  It was a far more useful emotion.  “May we assume the One is still lost?” she asked.


“If Gorthaur had his Ring, he would not be hiding in Greenwood,” Thranduil said bitterly.  “That may be the only hope we have.”


He climbed out of bed again, plainly too agitated to stay.  Rummaging in the wardrobe for clothes, he stopped a moment to scrutinize his reflection in the mirror.  The long and happy years had softened him somewhat, and the familiar muscular contours were not so defined as they had once been. 


“We are weak,” he grumbled as he pulled on his tunic.  “He knows we are weak, which is why he does not move against Gondor or Imladris.  We shall have to remedy that.”


“You are already doing all that you can,” Lindóriel protested.


“We never know what we can do until we try, love.”


 



Thranduil wandered among the treetops in the predawn darkness, attempting to gather his thoughts.  The storm looming overhead seemed reluctant to break, delivering more ominous thunder than rain.  It only added to the unshakable sense of apprehension in the air. 


It would be a long time before he dared to sleep after being so intimately compromised.  He had recognized that cold and disgusting presence attempting to thrust its way into his mind.  When he had realized what was happening he had been able to resist, but he still felt violated.


He paced back and forth like a caged animal, unable to either flee or attack, forced simply to endure the unrelenting stare of his enemy.  From the middle of one of the magnificent causeways which joined their houses, Thranduil could do little more than stare back.


He felt more than heard footsteps.  He turned to see Legolas striding over the bridge toward him, a look of unease on his face which had unfortunately become commonplace.


“You are wandering about very early,” Thranduil said dryly.


“I could not sleep,” Legolas explained, coming to stand beside him.  “Father, what is that?  Can you feel how heavy the air is?”


“Oh, I feel it,” Thranduil assured him.  “I suppose I should not be surprised that you feel it, too.”


“Is it the Necromancer?”


Thranduil nodded grimly.  “I had hoped we had banished all the demons of the ancient world before your time,” he said, “but I fear you will soon feel more than just his breath on your neck.”


“Then it is Sau—”


Thranduil threw up a hand to silence him before he could pronounce the name.  “I have my suspicions, nothing more.  It is not worth frightening everyone until we can be certain.”


Legolas swallowed hard.  “What shall we do?” he asked.


“Whatever we possibly can,” Thranduil said.  “He will have his stronghold on Amon Lanc despite us.  We shall fall back before him now, but once we remove north I intend to make him fight for every foot of ground.  Your mother and I are agreed that he must not yet have regained his full power, or else we would not be here now.  We cannot completely repulse him, but if we play our hand properly, we may be able to outlast him.”


Legolas nodded.  “I suppose there will be no hiding from him now.”


“Indeed, not,” Thranduil agreed.  “He is well acquainted with our family.”


It bothered Thranduil a great deal that Sauron had apparently turned his malevolent eye on his son.  For years he had hoped his child would never be within reach of those talons which had already snared his father.  Too late, he realized the Dark Lord had come upon him unawares and had seen everything.


There was indeed no hiding now.




Chapter 12 ~ Whispers in the Dark VI




Another year passed, characterized by the same suppressed disquiet which lurked beneath all their attempts to go about their daily lives.  The border of Mirkwood slowly but steadily crept farther north.  Thranduil went often to observe its progress with a wary eye, and he began inquiring more frequently after the work in the caverns.


He had no time to sleep.  He scarcely had time to eat.  When he was not receiving reports from the north or approving designs and compromise solutions for their cavern fortress, he was authorizing the import of raw supplies, visiting his field commanders, supervising military drills, and all the while watching the contents of their treasury dwindle. 


The last gathering of winter provisions was ongoing, ensuring that the forest would at least be picked clean before they surrendered it.  Valuable trees were felled in greater numbers than had otherwise been permitted, the lumber broken down immediately and transported over the mountains for bows, arrows, guardhouses, and other construction.  Better to use it than to waste it in Mirkwood’s corruption. 


All extraneous furniture from the king’s house that could be accommodated by the caverns was sent north as soon as possible.  Thranduil wanted to be free to evacuate at a moment’s notice with no more than his horse could carry, but there were some pieces he was loath to be parted from if it could be helped.  These were large and inconvenient things like the three royal thrones and the long table from the hall, each carved with untold skill and infinite patience by the silvan Elves for their king.  They reminded him of Oropher and better days.  In the absence of these and other accessories, Thranduil simply stood on the dais during audiences and did his work at a small table which Gwaelas kindly offered from his own room. 


Kneeling on the floor in his chambers, Thranduil now busied himself polishing the new sword which had just been presented to him by the best of his newly-trained silvan smiths.  The blade did not especially need polishing, but the repetitive motion was therapeutic, mindless enough that he could find some halfhearted rest while he did it.  The sun was setting when Lindóriel joined him, bringing food.  She did not disturb him at first, and spoke only when he had returned the sword to its case.


“Gwaelas tells me you have not eaten today,” she admonished him.


“I know,” he admitted, suddenly very aware of his gnawing hunger.  “I hardly know how I would survive without the two of you.”


She accepted his humor with good grace, but there was an obvious shadow of concern in her eyes.


Thranduil wolfed down his food while Lindóriel prepared for bed.  He had intended to return to work, but she caught his arm as he was leaving.


“Stay with me tonight,” she pleaded.


She knew he could never refuse her, and for that reason he knew she never asked unless she thought it very important.  Something about the tone of her voice made whatever he had intended to address downstairs seem much less urgent.  She drew him farther into the room, and the sensation intensified.


“I have work to do,” he protested feebly.


“You have nothing which cannot wait until morning,” she insisted.  She looked perfectly lovely clad only in her shift, her hair gleaming in loose cascades.  She drew him inextricably nearer, obviously determined to have him.


“You have no shame tonight, my lady,” Thranduil said, good-humoredly scandalized.


Lindóriel smiled.  “None whatsoever.”  She pulled him into her embrace, pressing her body against his, and he could no longer hide the ever more obvious fact that her charms were having their intended effect.  “I need you.” 


At that moment, wrapped in her arms, Thranduil was keenly aware that he needed her, too.  Despite their ever more dismal situation, at least they still had one another.  He kissed her, again and again with all the forgotten passion of happier times, and pushed the gown off her shoulders.


 



There was no bed in the room anymore, just a large cushion on the floor.  It was not entirely unpleasant, reminding him of those rough days so very long ago when their friendship had begun.  Needless to say, the circumstances were much more enjoyable now.


Thranduil was only half awake, nestled close against his wife in the early morning stillness, drifting in the scent of her perfume.  Lulled into an amorous stupor, he could almost forget everything that had preyed upon his mind a few hours ago.  None of it seemed so important that he could not spare a few moments more.


He wanted only to sleep, but as he perversely became more aware, he felt a sharp twinge of warning in the back of his mind.  Something was not right.  Could he feel something moving across the floor, or did he imagine it?  His skin began to crawl.


Thranduil’s eyes flew open, but he dared not move for a moment.  It was a very dark night; there was no moon and the stars were veiled, making the ominous gloom deeper than usual.  Lindóriel stirred as he squeezed her wrist. 


“There is something in here,” he whispered, slowly sitting up and gathering his feet under him, pulling her up as well.  “Stand up, stand up.”


She did as she was told, suddenly just as tense as he was.  Holding each other close, they had almost reached their full height when their heads struck web.  The lamps flared immediately to life by sheer force of his will, and Lindóriel screamed as he had never heard before.


The enormous spiders all began scuttling away from the sudden light.  One fell and landed on his wife, but Thranduil cuffed it away.  Caught without a weapon, he grabbed a pillow to beat any that came too near.  Lindóriel carried on screaming, and within moments Gwaelas and two guardsmen burst through the door, blades drawn.  Thranduil swept Lindóriel out of the room while the others dealt with the horrors.


Outside on the covered porch, Thranduil sat down with Lindóriel in his lap.  She was in no fit state to stand, and indeed looked as though she might faint.  The grisly sound of swords hacking at the walls and floor continued inside.  Three more guardsmen came running across the bridge, and Legolas from the other direction.  Lights began to glow all across the city.  Screams began sounding from many different quarters.


Their son took one look inside the room and did not have to ask what had happened.  Despite his obvious revulsion, he ducked inside and returned with a wrap for his mother and a shirt for his father.  Thranduil gratefully accepted both.


“Clearly ours are not the only vermin in the city,” the king said grimly, throwing the wrap around the queen’s quivering shoulders.  Scattered screams could still be heard as more lights were kindled.


“Do you wish the people to be warned?" the Guardsman Lancaeron asked. 


“Yes,” Thranduil decided as Lindóriel composed herself.  “Wake everyone who has not already discovered it for himself.  I want them packed and ready to leave at dawn.  I shall not spend another night in this place.”


 

Chapter 13 ~ Whispers in the Dark VII




Thranduil led the first party north at first light.  Legolas and Lindóriel followed close behind, Linhir, Galadhmir, and Anárion interspersed throughout the line to keep order, Brilthor bringing up the rear.  A heavy guard was deployed to protect the column as they wound their way through the mountain pass.  It was unfortunate that they could not have postponed this retreat until spring, but Thranduil was confident that they were prepared to withstand the winter without too much hardship. 


The king arrived at Arthrand Lasgalen before any messenger could announce his approach, throwing Galasrinion and Arameleth into a bit of a frenzy.


“My lord!” Galasrinion gasped as he rushed out to meet him at the gate.  “I must apologize.  We did not expect you, and your rooms are not finished.”


“I do not care whether they are finished,” Thranduil assured him, dismounting, “but only whether they are serviceable.”


“After a fashion, yes.”


“Excellent.  We shall fuss over the details later.”


Following the architect through the gates and down the corridor crowded with workmen, Thranduil was quite pleased with the progress which had already been made.  The walls had taken their final shape, though still bare of decoration.  The enormous hall at the center of the complex had been vastly improved since his last visit.  The walls were fitted with sconces which flooded the interior with warm light.  Stairways had been carved out of the floor to join the different levels of elevation, and the thrones had already been placed on the dais.


“Have the other chambers been cleared?” Thranduil asked.


“For the most part, my Lord,” Galasrinion said.


“We may need to use them and the main hall until we can build homes for everyone,” Thranduil said, thinking aloud.  “The gates and the waterways are secure?”


“Quite.  They were our first priority.”


“Stop work for the moment,” Thranduil directed him.  “No one sleeps tonight until everyone has somewhere to shelter.  Put as many as you can here in the caverns, and your people must open their homes to the rest.  Tomorrow, I want everyone out of here and breaking ground for houses outside.  The palace is secure enough to keep me until they are finished.  If you require further direction, address yourself to the queen.”


Returning down the corridor, Thranduil arrived at the gate just in time to meet Lindóriel and inform her of her new duties.  She would manage the chaos beautifully, he knew.  People were less likely to argue with her.  For himself, he remounted and began a long ride around the hills.


The location was indeed more defensible than their tree-woven city had been, but Thranduil still felt they were exposed.  He had much more subtle work to do, and quickly.  He rode through the wood around the enormous hill, trailing his fingers through the overgrowth and along the trunks of trees.  This far north the wood did not completely recognize him.  He must establish himself soon or their subterranean fortress would avail them little.


He tried to empty his mind of all the swirling cares which clouded it, which was more difficult than he had anticipated.  The long list of practical concerns which harried him lately made meditation a chore.


When he had made a few complete circuits around the hill, he dismounted to walk the path himself for a while.  His horse trailed along behind, needing no guidance.  The trees wore their vibrant autumn colors, laying a bright carpet of leaves underfoot.  Squirrels and deer rustled through the foliage, looking up as he passed, but apparently reassured by his presence. 


The longer he tried, the more attuned he became to the breathing of the forest, the vibrant life just beneath the surface.  He could smell life permeating the air, even with winter approaching.  Mirkwood smelled only of slow decay.  It may prove beyond his power to protect this wood entirely from the Necromancer’s touch, but he would try.


As evening was falling, Thranduil stopped and crouched beside a small stream, a trickling offshoot of the river.  He trailed his fingers in the water and was immediately preternaturally aware of the river’s course, a pulsing vein in the heart of the forest.  He closed his eyes, and yet was just as keenly aware of everything that moved around him in the growing darkness.  More importantly, he felt the wood was equally aware of him.  Resorting to the time-honored practice of the Eldar, he began to sing.


It was a romantic lament of a fallen king, written by the woodland people long ago in memory of Oropher.  It was poignant, but not without a small note of hope.  He began softly, gratified to feel the spirit of a gnarled oak glow against his hand in reply.  Carefully he projected a bit further, and soon he could feel the forest awakening to the sound.  Gradually the whole interwoven tangle of living things revealed itself to him, teeming with the silent and inarticulate strength of the trees.  They responded with interest, if not immediate acceptance.


At last he released the full power of his voice, letting it reverberate through the branches with a force that demanded recognition.  He was the king, he was the guardian of this wood, and it would answer him. 


The life force of the forest surged up through his body, tingling at his fingertips, consenting to be commanded.  The stream rose and the trees swayed in the windless night. 


The feeling dissipated as the song ended, and Thranduil allowed it to fade back into the stillness.  He was encouraged by how quickly he was being accepted.  Perhaps the trees of the north were more aware of the Oropherionnath than he had thought.  Perhaps they somehow understood he could not afford to spend years charming them.


As he rode back toward the fledgling city, Thranduil saw the trees were not the only things which had been awakened.  Small bonfires had been built all around the hill and music echoed across a scene of defiant gaiety.  Half of them were temporarily homeless and their wood had been invaded by a nameless terror, but all the silvan population was out dancing rather raucously on the grass.  A meager feast of smoked venison, apples and acorn bread had been thrown together out of the available stores, but no one seemed to want for anything.


Thranduil had to smile, strangely proud of them.  Even in the darkest times they could find something to celebrate.  It was the perfect setting.


Finding Lindóriel among the crowd, he leaned over to lay a kiss on her cheek.  “It is time,” he said, and she understood what he meant.  “Tell the others.”


While she sought out the rest of the ruling families, Thranduil turned his horse up the sloping side of the hill, heading for the distant summit.  They had discussed this plan well in advance, understanding the urgent need to entrench themselves as firmly as possible.  It had worked before, but more gradually and on a smaller scale.


When at last he did dismount at the crest of the hill, the view was spectacular.  He was far above the timberline with nothing between him and the stars.  He stood alone on the peak, planted his feet and drew a deep breath of the crisp air, so deep he could feel it bite his lungs.  When he released that breath, he released his fears with it.


He had flinched at first, but now he was dourly determined to look the Necromancer in the eye, be he Sauron or not.  There were many forces at work in his life, many memories and motivations which lent him the courage to stand now.  He was inspired by his father’s pride, his mother’s guidance, his wife’s encouragement, and his son’s trust.  Together they and the other Oropherionnath were a family which refused to be broken.  They would not be dismissed, they would not be taken for granted.


The wood below him was seething with lights, music, and the boundless energy of the woodland Elves.  He closed his eyes and allowed his other senses to sharpen, and after a few moments of focused concentration he was once again aware of the pulsing life of the forest.  More importantly, he was aware of his companions.


The rest of them had taken their places in a long half circle above the gate.  The other Meliannath were the strongest presences, Lindóriel, Galadhmir, Gwaelin, Linhir, Illuiniel, Menelwen, Noruvion, but woven between them were also the kindred energies of Anárion as well as those of the next generation, Legolas, Calenmir, Luinar, Lorivanneth, Annorín, and Moredhel.  United in a common purpose, they drew upon whatever abilities each possessed. 


For a time, Thranduil let that vibrant tapestry grow, each of them strongly aware of the others.  Then by sheer force of will, he drew that raw power up to himself like a wave, combining their strength to achieve in a moment what had taken Oropher years to accomplish alone.  They bore no Rings, they had not seen the blessed realm, but together they were a force to be reckoned with, and with them he could wield a power ten times his alone.  That power he now projected outward with all the force he could command, making his presence and his will known for miles in every direction.


The wood seemed overwhelmed by the sudden onslaught.  It was accustomed to the quiet silvan race, but had never before felt the concentrated power of the Sindarin lords.  It was a struggle to maintain that intensity, but Thranduil grit his teeth and held it a few moments longer, waiting for that tacit acceptance which would place the ancient power of the forest at his disposal.


At last it came, like a blast of invisible light.  For one intense moment he was blindingly aware of everything that lived and breathed around him, from the smallest insect to the largest beast, every ageless tree and sapling.  He was transfixed, at one with the deepest heart of Greenwood.


The moment did not last as their kindred nexus faltered beneath the strain, but they had accomplished their purpose.  Thranduil sank to his knees in the grass, surprisingly exhausted by the experience.  An echo of that vision lingered, a new and intimate awareness of the forest in the back of his mind.


He had established his new boundaries.  Let the Necromancer cross them at his peril.



Chapter 14 ~ The Storm Breaks




Despite the shadow of the Necromancer lingering in everyone’s mind, the next few years passed in relative peace.  It was not like the carefree days they had once known, but the Elves of Greenwood found they could go about their business without being too inconvenienced by the increased vigilance ordered by the king.


The new city had been built up around the palace, and though it was more densely populated than had previously been customary, everyone managed to make the best of the situation.  The population had grown exponentially during the peaceful years, a fact that was more apparent now that they were all settled in one region.


The swollen ranks of the army were on call at all times, each contingent serving in turn as a standing guard deep within the forest under the command of Lord Luinlas.  Their numbers varied from day to day based on whatever intuitions darkened Thranduil’s mind.  Stationed in rings radiating out from the city to the foothills of the mountains, there would be abundant warning in case of any attack.


The choking shadows of Mirkwood soon overtook the old site of Galadhremmen Lasgalen, but seemed to be momentarily halted by the mountains, validating the decision to remove north.  The king prowled the woods regularly, sometimes accompanied by the prince or the queen, refusing to be lulled into complacency by what he was certain was a false calm. 


Thranduil knew his forces were strong numerically, but inexperience could make those numbers meaningless.  The difference was obvious in their faces, the jaded determination of Oropher’s veterans beside the restless energy of the younger generation.  He drilled them mercilessly.  The best were recruited to replenish the ranks of the Royal Guard under Dorthaer’s command.  Thranduil had a great deal to protect, but his family was certainly among his first priorities. 


The warrior queen had come out in Lindóriel.  She and the other ladies had not forgotten the hard lessons of Beleriand, and they had begun training together with the mothers and daughters of Greenwood.  She made certain they all had whatever arms and armor they required, determined that at the utmost need there would be no one in their wood who could not defend herself.


The silvan Elves were not naturally inclined to a militant lifestyle, preferring a simpler and quieter existence, but they learned quickly when provoked.  No one was entirely sure what they would be facing, whether it be an invasion of Orcs or a gradual infestation of evil creatures, but they were determined to repel it.  For the time being, however, it seemed there was little more to do than watch and wait and go about their lives.


Thranduil woke with that thought on a gloomy spring morning after a particularly restless night.  He could see nothing from their subterranean bedchamber, but nonetheless he could feel the gathering storm above them.  He sat up and lit the bedside lamp.


“Were you dreaming again?” Lindóriel asked, as though she had been waiting for him to give up any attempt to sleep for some time.


“No,” Thranduil said, frowning.  “I am just especially uneasy today.”


“Why?”


He sighed.  “Your guess is as good as mine, love.”


“It could be that the king takes far too much upon himself,” Lindóriel suggested facetiously, pulling him back down beside her.  “Surely his lady wife is more than willing to help distract him.”


“He is well aware of the queen’s abilities,” Thranduil assured her, sliding his hand freely over her skin.


They laughed together, thankful they still could.  The stress had begun to wear on them, and at the end of the day their best comfort was still in one another’s arms.  Their evenings took an insatiably passionate turn more often than seemed entirely proper for Elves of their age.  Each day they remained safe and unmolested seemed a blessing too precious to go unappreciated. 


Thranduil kissed her and sat up once again, coaxing more light from the lamp.  Their bedchamber was hung with royal heraldry until they could fashion more permanent decoration. 


“I miss being able to see the sun,” Lindóriel sighed.  “It is so difficult to guess the time down here.”


“I suspect it is just before dawn,” Thranduil said, selecting some of his most durable clothes from the wardrobe.  “But there will not be much sun today, I am afraid.”


Unable to shake that restless uneasiness, Thranduil donned his leather armor once he had dressed.


“Will you be riding south?” Lindóriel asked, helping him into his gear.  “As you say, it may be a very wet day for it.”


“Perhaps,” Thranduil said, still uncertain himself, “but I am too agitated to be still.  In fact,” he said, as she brought him his sword belt, “I would feel better if you armed yourself as well, Lin.  Something is not right today.”


“As you wish,” she said, her brow furrowing slightly.


“Also,” Thranduil continued after a moment, “tell Gwaelin to bring the children inside until I can have a look around.”


Lindóriel nodded, the situation suddenly becoming more serious.  All families with young children already lived in the shadow of the palace.  Periodically, whenever Thranduil felt especially paranoid, they were brought into the fortress to be regaled by Lady Gwaelin with songs and tales of the Elder Days until it could be determined that they were in no immediate danger.  It was one of those days.


“Be safe,” she said, catching his hand as he turned to leave.


“And you as well,” Thranduil replied, cupping her lovely face in his hands and kissing her firmly.  “Hopefully, I shall return empty-handed once again.”


As he made his way to the main hall for breakfast, Linhir met him in the corridor with the bulletins for the morning. 


“Thranduil,” he said, falling into step beside him, “everything has remained quiet through the night, but the spiders have been seen north of the mountains.”


“That does not bode well,” Thranduil agreed.  “I want the forest guard increased immediately.”


“By how many,” Linhir asked.


“By as many as can be spared,” Thranduil insisted.


Now Linhir frowned.  The king’s dress that morning had not escaped him.  “Is it one of those days?” he asked.


“It is.  Arm yourself.”


The hall was sparsely populated at that hour, but Thranduil was glad to see Legolas already seated at the king’s table.  He looked distracted, and seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time over his fruit and cream.  Thranduil took the seat opposite him.


“May I call it a good morning?” he asked, prying into his son’s thoughts as delicately as he knew how.


“As good as any other, I suppose,” Legolas conceded.  “It is rather difficult to be certain lately.”


“Yes, I know,” Thranduil agreed.  “I am actually undecided at the moment.”


“I see you are prepared for the worst,” Legolas observed.  “Would you like me to come with you?”


“I would.  Unless, of course, you had other plans.”


Legolas rolled his eyes.  “I try not to make plans anymore,” he said bitterly.


Thranduil said nothing, understanding completely.  Legolas had every right to be frustrated, but he feared there were many hard lessons to come.  Changing the subject, he nodded at the plate between them.  “Are you going to eat that?”


Legolas handed him his fork.  “I shall meet you at the stables,” he said.


 



The clouds overhead were truly threatening, darkening the sun to the point that it looked more like late evening than early morning.  They only made Thranduil more uncomfortable, though he could not explain why.  A rumbling roar of thunder made his gray stallion shudder beneath him. 


“Steady, Ninniachel,”  Thranduil whispered, stroking the horse’s neck.  He might as well tell himself to be calm, for it would be equally hopeless.  Legolas emerged from the stables astride his own horse, and together they turned toward the southern road with Dorthaer and nine other Guardsmen.


The wood itself was very still.  Everything that could take shelter from the impending storm had already done so.  A mile from the city they encountered the first line of soldiers.  Another mile away, the next line seemed equally secure.  The same held true of the third line.  No one had heard or seen anything amiss.  The reinforcements he had ordered were still arriving, and everything seemed to be in good order.


“Perhaps it is nothing after all,” Legolas suggested hopefully.


“Perhaps,” Thranduil allowed, though he did not share that optimism.  Something was absolutely wrong.  He wanted to understand what the wood was trying to tell him, but he could discern only a mute dread.


With a startling clap of thunder, torrents of rain at last began to drench the forest.  A look of tacit displeasure passed the faces of the entire company, and Thranduil was too distracted to concentrate.  He was prepared to turn back when all at once a horn sounded above the noise.


Everyone looked up immediately, hearing the call.  It had never sounded before, but they all knew what it meant.  A wave of suppressed panic shook the ranks, and the captain turned and blew his own horn, warning those behind them. 


Orcs had been sighted.


“Return to the city!” Thranduil ordered Legolas at once.  “Make certain the children are secured and that the defense is prepared.  Go!”


Legolas looked for a moment like he would object, but then turned and galloped back up the road with his four guards.  Thranduil and Dorthaer turned their horses down the path to the east, the most likely passage around the mountains.  They drew up beside Lord Luinlas, who seemed to have just received a runner from the forward ranks.


“Speak to me,” Thranduil demanded, already soaked to the skin.


“They were not able to obtain an accurate count,” Luinlas relayed grimly, “but an extremely large number of Orcs are headed north.  They do not appear to be organized into a proper army, but behave more like a large raiding party.”


“The distinction will hardly matter in a moment,” Thranduil said.  “As their numbers overwhelm you, fall back to join the rank behind.  It will do us no good to let them take us piecemeal.”


“Yes, my lord.”  Luinlas sent the runner back to convey the king’s orders.  Thranduil himself turned north to inform the other captains.


 



They came erupting into the Elven wood like a plague of rats.  Though the Galennath put up fierce resistance, they were gradually beaten back by sheer weight of numbers.


It was midday when what was left of the forward ranks fell back to join the heavily reinforced second rank.  The rain made everything more difficult, but could not drown out the howling of the Orcs and the cries of the wounded.  Thranduil had dismounted and was standing with the archers, ordering volleys of arrows which protected the strategic retreat.  Those wounded who could be recovered were rushed behind the lines where the healers would either treat them or carry them back to the safety of the fortress.


It had become more desperate now.  Their enemy came with no coherent tactics, and the battle was no more than a continuous slaughter.  The forest was already strewn with corpses, but the Orcs continued to rush at them and Thranduil was not willing to fall back any farther.  They were too close to the city already.


They were being pressured on all sides, for a second wave of Orcs had apparently come around from the west.  Somewhere down the line arrows ran short, and swords flew out of their sheaths. 


Thranduil cursed and ran toward the failing line, drawing his own blade.  He caught the first Orc to muscle his way through, nearly severing his head, but soon the entire line collapsed and chaos ensued. 


The Orcs ran everywhere like the rapacious mob they were.  The Elves tried to fall back to the last rank remaining, but they could not escape the vicious close combat.


Thranduil was in as desperate a position as any of them, defending himself with an almost frantic ferocity.  It was not about repulsing the advance anymore; it was simply about staying alive.  Three more rushed him, and just as he managed to dispatch them all, he was struck solidly in the hip with a familiar biting pain.


“Damn it!” he hissed, an arrow embedded in his leg.  He stumbled backward, lifting his blade once again to whip the arm off an Orc before stabbing him in the throat.  Grasping the arrow as near the wound as he could, Thranduil hacked off the rest of the shaft with his sword.


A standard-bearer managed to sound a desperate horn call for reinforcements before he was cut down.


Looking up, Thranduil saw something that finally looked like an enemy captain striding across the battlefield directly toward him.  He reached for his bow but had more immediate need of his sword as he was broadsided by other Orcs.  He managed to overcome them all, but tripped over a corpse and fell hard into the mud.  The others swarmed at him, but another sword swung round in a bright arc above his head, deflecting their iron blades and striking brutal wounds on either side, driving them away like scavengers from a kill.  Lindóriel stood over him like a mother bear, her blade dark with blood, and with her came a fresh contingent of the King's Guard to retake the field.


“What are you doing here?” Thranduil demanded, horrified, as she seized his arm and began dragging him to his feet.


There was no time to answer.  Lindóriel thrust him back to the ground just as the black captain loosed his bow.  The arrow struck her full in the chest. 


At least eight arrows pierced that Orc in the next moment as a roar of dismay coursed through the Galennath. 


Thranduil crouched over her, seized with panic.  “Lin!”  Her eyes were wide with fear, but quickly growing glassy.   His own wound forgotten, Thranduil scooped her into his arms just as another shaft struck him below the first.  “Dorthaer!”


Recognizing what was happening, the Guardsmen rushed to his aid, defending their escape as Thranduil limped as quickly as he could toward the city.  Behind the lines, Illuiniel and several other women were sending the wounded away on bloody stretchers.  She paled when she saw them, but within a few moments she had them both carried back to the safety of the palace.


The main hall had become a field hospital.  Noruvion was supervising a small army of healers as they rushed to save as many lives as they could, but everything stopped for a moment when the king and queen were brought in.


“Never mind me!” Thranduil insisted vehemently, directing Noruvion to Lindóriel’s bedside.  “She needs you!”


He desperately wanted to remain with her, but he had his own injuries to contend with.  He grit his teeth as Noruvion’s son Nilmar carefully extracted the two arrows from his hip and cleaned the wounds.  The pain was just as excruciating as he remembered, but his attention was bent upon the exchange between Noruvion and his assistant.  It was not until Noruvion began cursing that he began to panic once again.


“What is happening?” Thranduil demanded, afraid of the answer.  Receiving no reply, he sat up and swung down from the table before his wounds could be bandaged despite Nilmar’s protests.


“I need my antidotes for venom!” Noruvion shouted to anyone who could hear.  “All of them!”


Thranduil knelt at the head of Lindóriel’s cot, helpless to do anything but watch.  The wound had grown to twice its original size, her flesh corroded by poison.  The arrowhead had come loose when Noruvion had tried to pull it free, releasing the toxin from a hollow in the shaft.


Receiving his box of antidotes from Nilmar, Noruvion quickly applied several of them with a salve directly to the gaping wound, pressing a bandage over it to stem the bleeding.  For a few breathless moments they waited.  Thranduil held his hand over the vein in her throat, praying desperately that each feeble pulse would not be her last.


“That was a devilish weapon,” Noruvion said at last.  “I can only be grateful we have not seen more of them.”


“It was meant for me,” Thranduil said miserably.  “What have they done to her?”


“I cannot know for certain until I study the poison more closely,” Noruvion told him, “but I strongly suspect it is a potent mixture of serpent and spider venom, perhaps among other things, which would explain her bleeding and the size of the wound.  But I have never seen a toxin act so quickly, so I cannot be certain.”


“Will she survive it?”


Noruvion did not answer, but continued to temporarily dress the wound.  The grim set of his features was not encouraging.  When he had finished, he felt her pulse, listened to her breathing, and looked disheartened.


“Thranduil, she will not last the night,” he admitted at last, choking back his own grief.  “I am truly sorry.  More damage has been done than I can repair.”


Thranduil hardly noticed Noruvion leave them, something in his heart twisted near the breaking point.  Lindóriel’s breathing was barely discernible, there was blood on her lips from the wound in her lung, and all the delicate blush of color had left her face.  She had not strength enough to acknowledge his presence. 


Tears streamed uncontrollably down his face, and his shallow breathing became sobs.  She was slipping away from him, just as his father had, in the blink of an eye.  It was unfathomable.  It was intolerable!


Leaning over her wasted form, Thranduil kissed her through his tears, slowly imparting whatever intimate force of life he could spare, even if it meant bringing himself within an inch of his own death.  He did not stop until he felt his grasp on consciousness weakening.  He let himself down slowly, kneeling in a heap at her bedside, her limp fingers entwined in his own.


He would not let them take her from him.



Chapter 15 ~ The Challenge




Four uneasy years had passed since the sudden invasion of the north, and it had become apparent that their lives would be very different from that point on.  There was hardly a family among them that was not touched by loss, for their casualties had been heavy.  Their wounds had healed, their dead had been buried, but the emotional scars were still evident.  The woodland Elves had become much more vigilant, more guarded and suspicious since their homes had been violated, traits that would serve them well in the coming days.


The shadows of Mirkwood continued to advance, but could not quite engulf the whole forest.  Whether repulsed by the power of the king or culled by merciless hunting, the evil beasts which infested the rest of the wood could not overrun the north.  Still, one had to keep one’s wits about him like never before.


Despite the darkening of the wood, despite their shaken confidence and an uncertain future, the one thing which never wavered was the Galennath’s determination to defend their homes rather than abandon them.  They had absolutely no intention of leaving the forest that had sheltered them for generations.  With that determination came a fierce loyalty to their king who had vowed to stand with them.  They rallied around Thranduil and the other Sindarin lords without hesitation, trusting in their experience to guide them through the dark years ahead.


Thranduil was aware of the trust placed in him, and he did everything in his power to prove equal their expectations.  There were no more concentrated attacks; it seemed the might of the Necromancer’s army was spent for the present, that he was content to simply harry them with roving bands of Orcs and whatever other foul creatures he could conjure.  Perhaps he lacked the power to do anything else.  In any case, he had done quite enough damage already.


Thranduil lay down his quill, too restless to sit still, though plagued by a deep weariness which penetrated his very bones.  He barely had enough energy to conduct his affairs, let alone to hunt down spiders and Wargs each day, though he made as good a show of strength as he could.  He was well aware of the cause, but was not willing to give it up just yet.


Lindóriel lay on the divan in the corner of the study, sleeping lightly.  Thranduil did not like to be separated from her for any length of time anymore.  Time was too precious.  Her wound had mended well enough despite leaving a terrible scar, but only after several days spent in the deepest sleep the healers could induce.  Even then she might have died but for his desperate efforts to anchor her spirit in place while her body healed itself.  Unfortunately, the wasting effect of the poison and whatever dark curse lay on that weapon had proven very difficult to counteract.  He selected two of the various elixirs sent from Imladris, preparing her midday regimen.  None of them seemed to be having much effect, but no one was ready to stop trying.


Like clockwork, Noruvion appeared in the doorway with a cup of diluted wine.  Thranduil accepted it with routine weariness, mixing in the medicine as Noruvion prepared to bleed her.


Anxious to spare her any discomfort he could, Thranduil sat gently beside her and lulled her into an even deeper sleep as Noruvion bound her arm and produced his blade.  After all else had failed, they were reduced to attempting to slowly bleed the poison out of her.  Hope was wearing thin.  It was a miracle she was alive at all.


“I am not certain how you are doing it,” Noruvion said at last with a small note of displeasure as he bound the small puncture on her arm, “but do not exhaust yourself in what may be a hopeless struggle.  We need a king, Thranduil, not a martyr.”


Thranduil merely glowered.  Noruvion was right, of course, but knowing that made the situation no easier.  It was impossible for him to choose between his wife and his other duties.  He had considered it many times and it remained impossible.  He had somehow managed to grasp Lindóriel’s ebbing life at the last moment, and no power on earth could force him to open his fingers now.


When Noruvion had left them, Thranduil coaxed her awake.  She was apparently still in some amount of pain, and the scarring in her lung made it difficult for her to breathe properly, but she still managed to smile when she saw him.


“Is it that time again already?” she asked, eyeing the cup in his hand. 


“I am afraid so, love,” he said.  “At least it does not seem to be doing you any harm.”


She dutifully swallowed the unpleasant mixture, just as she did every day.  At the very least, it eased her pain.


“There, you see?” Thranduil said, with a certain measure of false confidence.  “We shall have you back on your feet soon.”


Lindóriel attempted another smile, though it lacked conviction and soon faded.  She was under no such illusions.  “You are the only thing keeping me alive,” she said, reaching up to stroke his face.


Thranduil’s expression fell as well.  They were not deceiving even themselves with these pointless routines and treatments.  The only reason she had not died on the night of the attack was because he had lent her the strength to live, just as he had been doing each day for the last four years.


Unable to bear the feeling of helplessness, Thranduil leaned in to kiss her, allowing her to draw upon his life force once again, though he felt dangerously sapped.  Lindóriel allowed it for a few moments, but then pushed him back, breaking that intimate connection.


“You must keep your strength,” she protested.


“I am strong enough for the both of us,” he lied.  He was exhausted.


He managed to stand and scoop her into his arms.  Some time outside in the open air would do them both good.


Once they had emerged into the sunlight, Thranduil sat down on the green lawn beneath a young maple tree and gathered Lindóriel into his lap, her head on his shoulder.  He could smell the life of the forest, and that was enough to revive him.  He hoped it could do the same for her.


For a time neither said anything, content merely to appreciate each moment they could share together, moments they might not otherwise have had.  Life was easily taken for granted.  There was once a time not so long ago when they could have forgotten that death in fact walked among them, that loved ones might be snatched away without warning.  When he was in this mood, Thranduil could well understand the draw of the West, the yearning for a world as immortal as they were.  But his heart was still rooted in Middle-earth, the only world he had known.


“I dreamt of the ships again last night,” he said at last.


“Could you still hear your father calling you?” Lindóriel asked.


“Yes,” Thranduil said, “but I still cannot guess what it means.”


“It must mean something.  You have dreamt it often enough.”  She sighed, sinking her toes in the warm grass.  “Perhaps you are meant to be encouraged.”


“Ships which come from the West never bode well for anyone,” Thranduil said sourly.  “And ships which return there are no help to me now.”


Lindóriel was quiet for a time before venturing to speak again.  “Have you never thought of going into the West?” she asked.


Thranduil was taken aback for a moment, but the question was not unthinkable under the circumstances.  “Never seriously,” he admitted.  “My place is here.  My family is here.”


“We all have family there as well,” she said quietly, immediately bringing to mind the faces of his parents, grandparents, cousins, and all their other kinsmen who were now a distant memory.  The thought that they might all live in that immortal paradise beyond the horizon was at once a comfort and a temptation, but Greenwood’s hold on him was still far too strong.


“I am sorry,” Lindóriel said, feeling him tense.  “I have thought a great deal about it recently.  But I may not require a ship to take me.”


“Nonsense,” Thranduil said firmly, tightening his grasp on her.  “You are here with me now, where you belong.”


But, despite all his protestations to the contrary, he was not blind to the intrinsic selfishness of his motivation.  Though his heart rebelled and every instinct urged him to hold tighter, he knew there was one person who could convince him to let go, and he realized he had never asked her.  She had always been there for him, even before he had learned to appreciate it.  They were so intrinsically a part of one another now that to lose her would be to lose half of himself, a thought too crippling to imagine.  But could he really demand that she linger solely for his sake?


He understood now why his mother had left them so soon to follow Oropher.  She had been lost without him.  If Lindóriel died, he would not be free to follow her.  He would have to stay and carry on as best he could.


“Lin,” he said, forcing his voice to be steady, “do you want me to let you go?”


She looked up at him for a long moment, apparently with no ready answer.  “I am sorry,” she said at last, beginning to cry.  “I never wanted to be a burden to you, but neither can I bear to leave you and Legolas.  Not yet.”


It wrung his heart to see her suffer, but Thranduil adamantly swallowed his own tears for her sake.  “Stop crying, Lin,” he said gently, holding her closer.  “You know you cannot breathe when you cry.”  Sure enough, she began to cough.  Flecks of blood stained her hand, but not enough to cause any undue concern. 


The sound of approaching hoofbeats made them look up.  Legolas rode across the bridge and turned toward them, his entourage wisely turning the other way to leave the royal family in peace.  He had obviously been hunting, with half his arrows spent, stains on his sleeves, and a green leaf caught in his hair.


He dismounted and sat beside them on the grass, apparently in so similar a mood that no words were necessary.  There was a cold desolation in his eyes, the emptiness which always remained when revenge failed to satisfy it.  He had rescued his betrothed from the Orcs who had captured and brutalized her during the invasion, but the damage had been done.  She was pushing him away now for shame, another living casualty.


“Are you feeling better, Mother?” Legolas asked, obviously very concerned about her as well.


“Yes, much better,” Lindóriel said, wiping her eyes, though it was an obvious lie.  “What did you find in the wood today?”


“Spiders,” Legolas said.  “More spiders.  Once they breed, it is difficult to control them.”


“How is Lorivanneth?” Thranduil asked delicately, not wishing to pry.


“She still refuses to see me,” Legolas said matter-of-factly, a storm of emotion contained by a false calm, “though I have not stopped trying.”


“Keep trying,” Thranduil tried to encourage him.  “When she recovers, she will be glad of it.”


Legolas seemed to have his doubts.  “What if she does not recover?” he asked, squarely facing the worst scenario.


Thranduil swallowed hard, realizing that whatever answer he gave would apply to himself as well.  There truly was no escaping it.  “If you love her,” he said at last, “you must do what is best for her, and try to accept it as best you can.”


Lindóriel choked quietly as though she may begin to cry again.  She reached for Legolas and caught his hand.  Though all their dreams seemed to be crumbling, at least they had not yet lost one another.


Gwaelas hurried out of the gates.  Laden with Thranduil’s arms and armor, he obviously had no choice but to interrupt their reverie. 


“My lord,” he said, only slightly winded, “fresh Orc sign has been discovered along the river.  The hunt is being assembled to track them while retaining the advantage of daylight.  They await your convenience.”


The presence of Orcs within his borders was insufferable, and though Thranduil resented the intrusion into his time with his family, the call could not be ignored.  He gave Lindóriel a firm kiss before he gave her to their son and hauled himself to his feet.


“Legolas, stay with your mother,” he commanded as Gwaelas armed him.  He still felt weaker than he would like, but weakness was inexcusable now.  The anger smoldering in his heart once again proved a surprising source of strength.


He turned and stalked across the lawn toward the stables where doubtless his horse stood ready.  If it ever lay within his power, the Necromancer would pay dearly for the ruin he wreaked in Eryn Galen.


 



The sun was setting as Thranduil returned from the stables.  Everyone else on the green did well to step out of his way.  He was covered in lurid splashes of mud and gore, and made no attempt to conceal his foul temper.  A startling amount of his own blood ran in scarlet rivulets down the side of his neck from a superficial but surprisingly painful wound on his ear.  He was tired and smelled like Orc filth, and he wanted nothing more than a hot bath where he could brood in peace.  As he neared the gates, however, it appeared he had an unexpected guest waiting, attended by several of Dorthaer’s guards.


The travel-worn Man in rough gray robes looked up and smiled through his great beard as Thranduil approached.  “Ah, you are the Elvenlord of this wood,” he said.  It was not a question.


“Yes,” Thranduil said curtly.  “And you?”


“Oh, just a traveler who has seen much and yet wishes to see more,” the stranger replied cryptically.  “Your kinsman in Imladris speaks very highly of you, and I can see he has clearly not understated your courage.”  He seemed rather amused, observing the king’s frightful appearance.  “But I can also see that it may require more than simply raging about on a battlefield to maintain yourself here.”


Thranduil drew himself up, in no mood to mince words.  Who was this vagabond who dared to offer him criticism in the face of his own guard?  “You will do well to hold your tongue if it cannot learn civility, mithrandir,” he snarled.


“And you will do well to accept whatever aid may be offered you, Oropherion.”


The guards were openly shocked by his impudence, but somehow Thranduil could not bring himself to return a snappish answer.  There was a strange authority in that voice which he could not help but recognize, however grudgingly.


“I have just arrived beyond the Misty Mountains,” the old Man continued, leaning on a gnarled staff.  “I have heard a great deal of the Elvenking of the north, and I felt your presence upon entering the wood.  I have come to present myself and to offer assistance.”


He was intriguing if nothing else, and Thranduil resolved to hear him out.  “Welcome, then, to what remains of Eryn Galen,” he said, still too distracted by the pain in his ear to be completely cordial.  “Will you not give me your name?”


The old Man smiled again in that strange grandfatherly way.  “The one you have given me seems as good as any other,” he said.


“Very well.”  Thranduil was too tired to argue.  “Lancaeron will show you to your quarters.”


After Thranduil had bathed and changed into something more comfortable, he and Lindóriel took their dinner privately in the king’s study with the dogs.  The queen was warmly wrapped in furs, susceptible to chills now even in summer. 


Legolas joined them later as he did every evening so that his father could keep him abreast of the kingdom’s affairs.  Not much had transpired that day, except that Thranduil had received a complaint of bandits encroaching on the western border, the Dwarves of Erebor were now demanding a higher price for their metals, and the bowyers guild had requested and received permission to cultivate greater numbers of ash and yew trees.  The Orcs had been insignificant in number, only seven, and had been dispatched quickly once they had been flushed from their holes.  A stronger watch was positioned in the area for the time being.


“Is that all?” Legolas asked at last, looking over Linhir’s closely written records.


“That is all,” Thranduil sighed, leaning back in his chair.  “But stay.  There is someone I think you should meet.”  He gestured to Gwaelas, who disappeared immediately to summon their mysterious guest.


While they waited, Thranduil generously refilled their wine glasses and poured a fourth.  He laced Lindóriel’s with another dose of her medicine, for whatever it was worth.  “To whatever end,” he said wryly.  With a nod, they all drank to that.  As a family, perhaps they were occasionally guilty of trying to drown their woes.  They had cause enough.


Gwaelas reappeared at the door with the nameless stranger.  Legolas’ eyes narrowed, mirroring Thranduil’s initial bemusement.  It was indeed difficult to know exactly what to make of him.  The dogs merely wagged their tails, and that was always a good sign.


“Please, be seated . . . Mithrandir,” Thranduil said, still uncertain how to address him.  He indicated a nearby chair as Gwaelas offered the wine.


“Ah, thank you, my lord,” he said pleasantly, accepting the refreshment and the seat.  “This is your son, I presume, and your lady wife.”


“Yes, my son, Legolas, and Queen Lindóriel.”


“Very well,” he nodded, “but enough pleasantries.  I am making myself known to each Elvenlord in Middle-earth.  I have spoken to Círdan in Mithlond, to Elrond in Imladris, and to Amroth in Lórinand.  You, Thranduil, cause me the most concern.  You have no doubt become aware of the usurper in your wood.”


“I had noticed him, yes.”  Thranduil said, guardedly.


“I and the others of my order are investigating the origin of this shadow, so do not think you are alone in your concern.  Do you intend to stay and defend this woodland realm against Dol Guldur?”


“I had not considered otherwise.”


“Ah, yes.  I have been warned that you are very . . . persistent, shall we say?  But you are aware that this foe may be beyond you?”


“He has yet to prove himself so,” Thranduil said, with more bitterness than confidence.  “Let him unseat me if he can.”


The old Man nodded gravely, though grim smile lines appeared around his fathomless eyes.  “The day may come when you live to regret that challenge, Oropherion,” he said, “but I am confident you will never shrink from it.”


 



That night, Thranduil was once again unable to sleep.  His mind was far too restless.  When Mithrandir had left them for the evening, he and Lindóriel had spent quite a bit of time speculating about his origins and purpose.  They had both decided there was the distinct aura of the Maiar about him, and thus his purposes were best left alone.  Lindóriel had suggested that his coming to Middle-earth with the others of the order to which he had alluded may perhaps be the cause of Thranduil’s recurring dream of the mysterious ships.  It was as likely an explanation as any other.


He did not like to leave Lindóriel alone, but he was burning with curiosity.  He climbed out of bed and dressed in the darkness.  Mithrandir had intimated that he may be gone by morning, and Thranduil was determined to speak with him at least once more.  He felt strangely drawn to him, as though this stranger possessed the answers to questions he had not yet thought to ask.


Gently closing their bedchamber door behind him, Thranduil tried to discern Mithrandir’s presence.  The only thing of which he was certain was that he was not in the guest quarters.  Making inquiries of the guards along the corridors, he at last established that the wizard, or whatever one might call him, had last been seen leaving the gates.


A full moon and myriad stars lit the grounds.  Undaunted by a climb he had made many times, Thranduil turned toward the summit of the hill.


Mithrandir was indeed there on the crest, looking quite eerie cowled in his long robes and enormous hat.  He stood very still and did not look round, yet Thranduil felt strangely that he had been expecting him.


“They say the spirit of the wood never sleeps,” Mithrandir said, his voice low and gruff.  “Apparently, neither do you.”


“It is more difficult now than one may expect,” Thranduil replied.


Mithrandir grunted thoughtfully, never taking his eyes off the forbidding landscape to the south.  “I am afraid you may find the same to be true of many things before this is ended, Aran Thalion.”


Thranduil’s own misgivings had been unsettling enough without Mithrandir’s chilling speculation.  How much worse would their plight become before it became unbearable?  Perhaps it was best not to know.


Mithrandir turned to him then, and Thranduil felt those eyes pierce him to the core.  “You perhaps have already guessed the danger you may be facing,” he said with a new intensity.  “That darkness out there is intent upon swallowing you whole, and indeed you are the most vulnerable.  Yet, if you have but half of your father’s tenacity, there is no other to whom I would more willingly entrust the safety of the north.”


Thranduil felt his heart quicken.  Had Mithrandir known his father?


“I promised you assistance when I arrived,” he continued, “and you shall have it.  Another of our number is determined to make his home here on the border of your wood.  He is a master of birds and beasts, and can teach you their speech.  Learn from him, Thranduil.  Learn all you can, for a day may be coming without a dawn.”


“Where can I find him?” Thranduil asked, more agitated than he had been in a long time.


“He will find you,” Mithrandir assured him.  “He has a gentle touch, but do not hesitate to apply yourself with all the ferocity your bloodline can boast.  And that, I fear, brings me to the condition of your dear queen.”  He looked Thranduil squarely in the eye once again.  “Even the strongest of us are hard-pressed to wage two wars at once, my lord, and you cannot cheat death forever.  You have fought it admirably thus far, but it will have its way despite you.  You will need all your strength if you are to weather this storm.”



Chapter 16 ~ The Darkest Night




The Elvenking thundered into the woodland clearing astride a silver-dappled stallion, accompanied by a dozen mounted guards.  The expressions on their faces would have inspired fear in even the most hardened. 


Six other grim Wood-elves stood in the clearing, each holding a bound and kneeling prisoner by a noose about his neck.  They stood even straighter to receive their king, and a bloodthirsty roar rose from the crowd of spectators which surrounded them.  That crowd contained not only Elves, but also a significant number of those Woodmen who also populated the forest.  The prisoners were six of their own people, yet it seemed they had been universally disowned.


Thranduil dismounted, fully armed and draped in a blood-red cloak, an enormous figure before the Men on the ground.  One tried to jump to his feet, but was thrust ungently back into his place.  The most brutish of them spat in Thranduil’s direction, earning himself a sharp cuff across the head from his keeper.


“These Men, my lord,” Baradhren began, “have been found guilty of heinous crimes against your people on the western marches, including theft, ambush, assault, preying upon travelers, wanton destruction of property, and several attempts to ravish Elvish women.  They await your sentence.”


“What say their own lords?” Thranduil asked formally.


“We also judge them guilty,” the rugged chief of the Woodmen declared.  “We abandon them to the mercy of the Elvenking.”


They must have been guilty of similar crimes among their own people, because another vicious cheer rose from the crowd, making it abundantly clear they wanted mercy to have no part in it.


“I do not answer to the Elvenking!” one of the condemned shouted, worked into a frenzy of either fear or rage.


“You have broken the Elvenking’s laws,” Thranduil reminded him darkly, “attacked his people and abused his guests, and for that you will answer.  You forfeited your right to live among us long ago.”


Two of the King’s Guards dismounted and stood just behind him.  The one on his left held a bundle of six strong rods and a branding iron.  The one on the right held a naked sword.


A rumble of suspense rolled through the crowd as the king stood betwixt the instruments of exile or death.  As cross as he was, Thranduil contained his anger in an unnerving calm.  He held the gaze of the most obdurate prisoner until the other’s defiance was exhausted. 


Finally, he held out his left hand.


The men wilted with relief, while the crowd had a mixed reaction.  Thranduil took the bundle of rods and handed them to Baradhren.  “See that they are severely punished, but not crippled,” he said.  “Brand them, bind their wounds and take them to the border.  To reenter the forest will carry the penalty of death.”


As the prisoners were led away to face their sentence and the crowd gradually melted into the trees, one observer caught Thranduil’s attention.  He might have mistaken him for an especially tall Woodman in brown robes, but something about those deep and gentle eyes made him look again.


“Good day to you, my lord,” the stranger said, bowing slightly over his staff.  “Among Men I am called Radagast the Brown.  I trust my friend Gandalf the Grey advised you to expect me.”


“Ah, yes—Mithrandir,” Thranduil nodded.  “Yes, he did.  Though, as he is wont, he neglected to give me your name.”


“The Elvenking showed admirable mercy today,” Radagast observed.


“Had they succeeded in ravishing any of our women, my judgment may have been different,” Thranduil admitted.  “But welcome, Radagast the Brown, to Mirkwood.  I understand you wish to establish yourself here.”


“I anticipate settling on the western border,” he said, “with your permission.”


“Beyond the border you have no need of my permission,” Thranduil assured him, gathering his horse’s reins.  “But I give it all the same.”


“I had hoped to speak to you at some length, my lord,” Radagast said, seemingly dismayed that Thranduil was mounting already.


“Yes, please be my guest in my halls,” Thranduil asked.  “I am afraid urgent concerns call be back immediately, but you will be always welcome.”


Radagast’s face assumed a knowing expression.  “Do not overtax yourself, my lord,” he warned, “or there may come a time when even you have nothing left to give.”


Somehow he knew.  With no time to frame a reply, Thranduil turned his horse and galloped back up the path.


He had not forgotten Mithrandir’s warning last year.  He actually felt much stronger than he had for a long time, but that was doubtless because he had already been away for several days, and Lindóriel must be that much weaker.  Once again it was proving impossible to balance both obligations.


When at last they arrived back at the palace, night had fallen and their horses were frothed with sweat.  Only a frail sense of decorum prevented Thranduil from running through the corridors to his chambers.  At last, he burst into the room, and the queen’s maids scattered leaving only Legolas seated on the bed beside his mother.


“I am sorry, love,” Thranduil apologized, coming to join them.  “I returned as soon as I could.”  He stopped short as he saw Legolas' face was streaked with tears.  It must be worse than he thought.  “Ai, Belain, I should never have left you.”


Lindóriel did appear to be on the verge of death.  Dark circles had grown under her eyes and her breathing was labored.  They had had close calls before, but never as near as this since the night she had taken the wound. 


Legolas relinquished his place to his father.  Drawing a few deep breaths to calm his nerves and focus his concentration, Thranduil carefully gathered Lindóriel's limp form in his arms and prepared to revive her yet again, whatever the cost.  But before he could, she found strength enough to turn her head away.


“No,” she whispered.  “No.  They need you.  Legolas needs you.”


“But I need you,” Thranduil protested, seized by panic.


She smiled weakly and stroked his face, though tears welled in her eyes.  “You can be strong without me,” she said.  “You always were.”


“She has already decided,” Legolas said miserably.  “She was only waiting for you.”


“No!”  It was too soon.  He was not ready.  “I cannot simply watch you die.  Lin, I cannot!”


She placed a hand over his mouth.  “Promise me you will not abandon them,” she pleaded.  “They love you, too.  Promise.”


Tears escaped him in a flood as he at last accepted the hopelessness of it all.  He held her close and buried his face in her hair.  “I promise,” he choked.  “I will promise you anything!”


Lindóriel shushed him gently.  “Stop making me cry,” she said with a quavering attempt at humor.  “You know I cannot breathe when I cry.”


But there was no stopping it now.  There was not enough life between them to sustain them both, and they would be cruelly parted at last.  “I love you,” Thranduil gasped, knowing it may be the last time he could tell her.


He held her as she fought for each rattling breath, every moment a heart-rending struggle simply to do nothing as her lungs filled with blood and she began to choke.  It was by far the most difficult thing he had ever done.


Hours passed.  Or was it only minutes?  At last, when he felt he could bear it no more, her grasp on his shoulders slackened, her lovely head fell limp, and she was gone.


Thranduil continued to hold her in the sudden stillness, insensible to everything but the crippling feeling that some vital part of himself had been torn away with her, something he did not yet know how to live without.  A violent trembling seized him as though the chill of the frost outside had clutched his heart, and an overwhelming well of grief rose to drown him.  There was no mercy in the world, no pity.  Nothing was sacred.


A raw howl of rage and despair reverberated through the halls of Arthrand Lasgalen.  Then it was swallowed again by profound silence.





Chapter 17 ~ The Darkest Night II





Imeldis, first among the queen’s maids, fell against the cavern wall in the outside passage as soon as she and the others had left the king and the prince alone with their mistress, pressing a trembling hand over her mouth.  Alphien and Duiniel also lingered nearby.  They knew they should afford the royal family greater privacy in their moment of supreme grief, but now that the dread moment had come they could not bear to leave her either.  It would not be long now.

After an agony of silence, the king’s desolate cry split the night and at last wrung a sob from her, but Imeldis then swallowed her own grief and forced herself to be steady for the queen’s sake.  She had work to do.  “Stay and attend our lady when our lord, the king, is willing to release her,” she quietly instructed the others.  “I will find Gwaelas.”

Imeldis turned and went in search of the king’s man.  She had not far to go, for Gwaelas, hearing what they had heard, was already approaching the royal chambers, a dreadful suspicion on his face. 

Imeldis held up a hand to stop him and shook her head.  “The queen is dead.  Leave them in peace.”

Gwaelas bowed his head with an anguished sigh, sharing in some measure his master’s sorrow.  “I feared it was so,” he said.  Then almost at once his gaze became distant as he considered what had now to be done.  “Somehow we must prepare a fitting burial for her.”

“Set your mind at rest, Gwaelas,” Imeldis assured him.  “It was the queen’s wish that the king not be troubled about these matters.  Come, arrangements have been made.”

 


 


Indeed, knowing her end was near, Queen Lindóriel had quietly made all the necessary arrangements herself.  She and her maids had been secretly embroidering a wealth of yellow roses around the edges of the king’s green banner to be her burial shroud.  She had discreetly commissioned the services of a single woodcarver and his sons to craft a worthy casket, every part of it adorned with intricately intertwined roses and beech boughs.  So complete were her instructions and preparations, the household found they were able to proceed without delay.

She had requested a military funeral because her people were at war.  So, on the following morning, the king in full battle dress carried her body in solemn procession to the palace gates and laid it in her great oaken casket in the sight of all who had come to mourn her.  She wore the richly embellished tunic of a warrior queen, and in her hands her son placed her sword and a single rose.  She had written a parting address to the people of Eryn Galen which none had the heart to read aloud, but it was posted upon the gates outside, and all who read it wept.

At midday the queen’s casket, still open, was lifted onto the shoulders of King Thranduil, Prince Legolas, Lord Galadhmir and Lord Calenmir, her only living relations east of the Sea.  They carried her slowly in precise military step to the somber beat of the war drums, followed by a thicket of banner-bearers and rank upon rank of the King’s Guard and other members of the king’s household.  Every soldier who could be present at such short notice had turned out in his uniform, standing in silent ranks along the route.  Crowds of people had gathered beside the road to mourn and honor her, weeping and strewing the path ahead with roses, all falling into line behind as the slow and ever-lengthening procession passed through the autumn wood.

As they entered the little valley she had chosen, rows of mounted lancemen draped in the finest heraldry lifted their weapons into an arch to salute their queen as she passed beneath it.  Another honor guard of sixty soldiers stood around the beginnings of a barrow which was being constructed for her.  There, upon a great, flat stone, her bearers set her down for a final farewell. 

Great tears were streaming down the king’s face, but his features were firmly set, and the others were striving to follow his example as they performed that final service for her.  The soldiers approached to fit the lid on the casket, but Thranduil would not allow it, reluctant to finally lose her from sight.  He leaned over to hold her hand and lay his brow against hers once more before she could be taken from him.  The tragic scene caused Legolas to nearly lose his composure at last until Galadhmir gently steadied him from behind.

Finally, the lid was fitted and the heavy iron stays secured.  The embroidered shroud was draped across it.  Six Guardsmen lifted the casket and carried it to the barrow’s foundation, setting it in place.  Lady Gwaelin sang a keening lament which wrung tears from everyone as the fitted stones were built into a self-supporting dome around it.

The ceremonies ended as the drudgery of piling earth and stones onto the barrow began.  The mournful crowds dispersed and the soldiers were dismissed, although an honor guard remained to see the work done properly. 

The king also refused to leave.  Imeldis felt keenly for him, as everyone did.  Her father had died in the first battle with the Orcs and she had seen her mother mourn in much the same way.  Thranduil did not linger to make a public show of his grief.  He stayed because he did not yet know how to leave her.  When it came to it, there was no easy way to leave your beloved dead in the ground and return home without them.  It changed you.

A great many things were changed by this, she felt sure, and very few for the better.

 


 


Beloved Galennath, people of Greenwood the Great in Rhovanion beyond the Mountains of Mist, I fear the misfortunes of war have overcome me at last.  I deeply regret leaving you now in your time of greatest need, but even in this I hope to be of some final service to you.

Be not consumed by our sorrows, but look to your defense.  Fight bravely that the world may recognize the courage of the woodland people.  This war may bring many sorrows yet, but you must bear them together and find your strength in them if you would outlast our enemy.

I commend you to your king, Thranduil Thalion Oropherion, the noblest and most valiant lord I have ever known.  He will champion your defense.  If I must die that he may live, I regret only that I am able to give my life but once in his service.  Honor and obey him, as I would have done.

The road may be long, but this need not be our final parting.  If the Belain show mercy to the sundered Elves of the east and restore them to life in that land beneath the sunset, I will be there to gather the fallen warriors of the Wood and restore them to our people, those well-beloved who have preceded us in death.  There we shall await the end of all things, when all unsung deeds of valor will be rewarded.

Farewell, and may we meet again in fairer lands where grief and hardship may be forgotten.

I remain ever yours in peace and peril,

Lindóriel Dorlassiel Oropheriel, Queen of Eryn Galen

 







Chapter 18 ~ The Darkest Night III




The joy had gone out of the wood.  There was no one who did not sincerely mourn the death of their queen, but it devastated the king.  For weeks he was scarcely seen except at her grave, and no one dared approach him there.  Official business came to a near standstill in his absence, and even when he did make an effort to be present it was obvious that he was often relying upon wine to blunt his pain.  More often his neglected duties fell to the prince.


Legolas sat behind the king’s desk, sorting through the mess of papers, feeling slightly out of place.  It was not that he did not understand how to manage their affairs, but he was not accustomed to having the first and final word.  As keenly as he felt the loss of his mother, he understood why it struck his father much harder, and no one begrudged Thranduil his period of solitude.  But it could not go on forever, and it was beginning to have detrimental effects none of them had foreseen.


Alarming reports from the border described a sudden advance by the evils of the Necromancer.  So long as Thranduil grieved, the whole wood grieved with him, and all the while Mirkwood was closing in around them.  The regional governors were mounting the best defense they could, but the shadows rushed into the void where once they had been repelled by the will of the king.  Now it seemed the king struggled to simply find will enough to live.


Legolas buried his face in his hand, the gravity of their situation and his own emotions threatening to overwhelm him.  He was not the king, he could not command the power of the king which was so desperately needed.  He idolized his father, that titan of ages past whom tragedy had forged into royalty, and the world was suddenly a strange and lonely place now that even Thranduil had been brought to his knees.  Where there had once been a potent sense of strength, now there was only pain and a yawning emptiness.  They could all feel it.  Surely the Necromancer had not failed to notice. 


The thought of that faceless demon in the south, the author of all their woes, had long ago begun to kindle the first stirrings of hatred in Legolas’ heart.  It was a dark and intoxicating emotion, and perhaps the only remedy for grief they could expect in such an unforgiving world.


Both Erelas and Gwaelas lingered uneasily at the door, each awaiting an assignment.  They looked to him for direction although between them they had served the Kings of Greenwood for many thousands of years longer than his lifetime.  The apprehension on their faces mirrored the temper of the whole population.


“Gwaelas,” Legolas sighed at last, “where is the king?”


“In the Lady’s Vale, my lord,” Gwaelas replied, confirming his suspicions. 


It was the most obvious place, yet so wholly inaccessible.  No one had yet challenged Thranduil’s dreadful solitude there.


“Will you go after him, my lord?” Gwaelas asked, unable to keep silent any longer.  “Please go after him, Legolas.  He cannot hear us, but he will hear you.”


“I doubt the king is disposed to hear anyone,” Legolas said dismally, though he did intend to try.


“You are all that remains of the voice of the queen,” Erelas reminded him.  “He cannot help but hear you.”


It was a clear autumn day outside.  The trees seemed to be dropping their leaves more quickly that year, perhaps reflecting the pervasive melancholy which gripped the entire realm. 


Legolas hesitated at the edge of the clearing.  His father sat at the foot of the queen’s barrow, weaving a wreath of her yellow roses.  The aching loneliness of the scene was palpable. 


Hearing a soft tread over the grass, Legolas turned to find Lord Galadhmir coming to stand with him, apparently fresh from the hunt.


“Is it true, then?” Legolas asked.  He had not had the opportunity to confirm the reports of the marchwardens for himself.


His uncle nodded grimly.  “They were quite correct,” he said, “and it only grows worse by the day.  We need your father back.”


“You have known him longer than I,” Legolas said.  “Do you believe he will ever be himself again?”


Galadhmir sighed heavily.  “We have seen a great deal of death,” he said, “and he has always managed to rally, but each time it strikes deeper.  Each new grief recalls the last until together they become all but impossible to bear.  I do not doubt that even Thranduil may break if once he is tried too far.”


“Is he near that now?”


“Very near,” Galadhmir admitted.  “But I expect in time he will learn to bear even this, for your sake if nothing else.  I pray it never goes ill with you, Legolas, because that may indeed be the ruin of him.”


“It is a wonder to me that you all have borne as much as you have,” Legolas said, recalling the violence of their past.


“It seems we are all doomed to taste some measure of that sorrow in our lives,” Galadhmir said distantly, “an immortal race in a mortal world.  Death stalks us all, and it leaves wounds which do not heal within the bounds of this earth.  She was my sister, she was your mother, but she was his heart.  Somehow your father must find it within himself to face each day with that emptiness in his soul.  I do not envy him that.”


“It is very cruel,” Legolas agreed bitterly.  “He needs time.  He deserves time, but I cannot give him that.  Were he anyone else, he would be free to mourn in peace.”


“You will find that your father is not like anyone else,” Galadhmir assured him with a hint of pride.  “And you can give him more than you know.”


It was difficult to know what he could do in the face of it all, but certainly he had to try.  The pit they were sunk in seemed too cavernous to climb free of all at once.  They may never succeed if the king were left to struggle alone.


Galadhmir nodded encouragingly in Thranduil’s direction, and then turned and walked away. 


Boldly, Legolas entered the valley and approached the king.  He was not afraid, but it had always seemed heartless to interrupt him.  Heartless it may be, but the needs of the kingdom were becoming too dire to allow the indulgence. 


He slowed a few paces distant.  “Father?” he ventured cautiously.  He must be aware of him, but it was difficult to tell sometimes. 


“Yes?”  Thranduil turned imperceptibly towards him.  There was no impatience in his voice, just a profound weariness.


“You have not slept for days,” Legolas said, crouching beside him, genuinely concerned.  “You have scarcely been home.  Gwaelas is half mad with worry.  I have been worried.”


Thranduil merely looked at him, his eyes so expressive that there was truly no need to speak.  He was not entirely sober, and Legolas knew there would be no reasoning with him in that state.  It was enough to simply sit with him for a few long moments, each deriving some comfort from the other. 


“Will you at least come back for supper?” Legolas asked at last.  “For me, today of all days?”


Thranduil nodded.  “Yes,” he said thickly.  “I promise.”


Satisfied for the moment, Legolas left him in peace for what may be at least another hour.  Nothing catastrophic was likely to happen in that time.


But, as he walked back toward the caverns, the all too familiar call to arms sounded through the forest.  It was appended by a special call which specifically demanded the presence of the king.  Thranduil’s people were calling for him.


Legolas ran the rest of the way.  He did not know whether Thranduil would answer that call, or indeed whether the king was in any fit state to answer it.  He would be riding regardless, either with his father or in his place.


Erelas met him at the gate with his arms and armor.  A company of mounted archers was assembling on the green, and Lord Linhir soon rode out from the stables to meet them with Legolas’ horse.


“What is it this time?” Legolas demanded of the scout when he had mounted.  The last preparations were being made, and they would be gone in a moment.


“Easterlings and Orcs have descended upon the villages of the Woodmen along our borders and are steadily encroaching westward, burning as they go.  The marchwardens have countered their advance, but they are calling for aid.”


“And they shall have it,” Thranduil said, unexpectedly appearing beside them astride his horse, armed for war.  His voice was frighteningly dispassionate all of a sudden, and his eyes were cold as ice.  “There is still a king in Greenwood, and he is not blind.”


 



They raced south along the eastern edge of the forest.  A raid so near the capital was indeed brazen and merited a royal response, but Legolas was not yet certain whether to be relieved or apprehensive about his father’s sudden aggression.  The king seemed well enough in control as they galloped headlong down the path, yet Legolas suspected something manic lurked just beneath the surface.  He resolved not to be separated from him. 


A full-blown rout was in progress when they thundered onto the scene of burning homes and wanton carnage.  Thranduil directed a third of them to remain and hold the area while the rest joined the pursuit.  The king quickly rode around the whole area, either to take stock of the damage or to satisfy himself the place was secure.  Legolas continued to shadow him.


They both saw him at the same time.  Legolas’ horse collapsed with a scream, and the Orc bolted out from behind the burning house, fitting another arrow to his bow as he ran for the forest.


Regaining his feet, Legolas aimed a shaft of his own, but could not get off a clear shot.  Thranduil ran the Orc down before he could reach the trees, trampling him with his horse.


The Orc was crushed beneath the stallion’s steel-shod hooves, but the Elvenking turned about for another pass, leapt down from his horse and began hacking and slashing at the body with an artless brutality.  Legolas lowered his bow and wisely kept his distance while the bloody drama played itself out.  He could not have stopped it even if he had wanted to.


“Legolas,” Lord Linhir said, suddenly appearing at his side.  “We have a messenger from Imladris.  He arrived at the city, but refused to wait.  Lord Galadhmir directed him here.”


Legolas turned and recognized Elrohir, son of Elrond.  He immediately swallowed whatever bitter and incredulous remarks had sprung to mind.  Elrohir’s eyes darted toward Thranduil, but he seemed understandably reluctant to approach him.  Legolas beckoned him over.


“The king is not in an equitable frame of mind, I am afraid,” he apologized, trying to ignore the grisly sounds behind him.  “You may address yourself to me.”


“A council is convening in Imladris to discuss the growing evils in Middle-earth,” Elrohir advised him, producing a sealed letter bearing Elrond’s stamp, “including the Necromancer of Mirkwood.  Your father, King Thranduil, has been invited to advise them.”


“Thank you,” Legolas said, accepting the letter and turning the idea over in his mind.  “I shall inform the king and see that you have an answer as soon as possible.  You are, of course, more than welcome to stay with us here, but doubtless you will be more comfortable in the city.”


Thranduil was striding back across the green now, and he tossed the severed head into a burning house as he passed.


Elrohir gladly took his leave.


“The king is in no condition to attend a council in Imladris,” Linhir hissed.  “He is barely in his right mind.”


“He will attend,” Legolas promised him, “and I suspect it will do him a great deal of good. 


 



The wives, widows and children of the Woodmen were granted leave to accompany the Elves back to their city where they would shelter until their homes were rebuilt.  They were led away by the king, mounted two and three at a time on Elvish horses.


Thranduil could not help marveling at the number of children in their company.  There were always an astounding number of children among mortal kind, though they were born to short and painful lives.  How could a race so weak be so prolific?  He would have adopted those frightened and dirty faces with open arms if he could.


They arrived back at his own halls long after dark.  Leaving all the other arrangements in very capable hands, Thranduil retreated to his study, in no mood to maintain a respectable facade.  Gwaelas disarmed him without a word, leaving him with a hot bath.


Clean again and alone in the oppressive silence, the bittersweet memories came flooding back.  Thranduil sat behind his desk with a bottle of the queen’s favorite wine, just as he once had almost every evening.  He still poured two glasses, though there was no one to share it with.


He had never imagined life without her.  It was unreal, and yet so completely inescapable.  If either of them were to be killed in battle, they had expected it to be him.  Indeed, it would have been him had she had not foiled the Necromancer’s assassin at the last moment.  She would have done it again, she had told him, even knowing what it would cost her.  


He wanted to follow her, consumed by the desire to be near her again.  That was where he belonged, where the vows that bound them dictated he should be.  But even if he could reconcile himself to leaving all else behind, he could not forget that she had forbidden it.  She had been a queen to the end.  He deliberately tortured himself each night with thoughts of her until he felt his heart would break.  He wanted to remember everything.  The untold years he must now face alone were too terrible to contemplate.


He was haunted by the memory of her last gasping breaths, tormented by the senseless conviction that somehow he had failed her, the one he loved most in all the world.


He hurled his glass to the floor, broken shards flying in all directions.


“I am trying to convince Linhir you need no looking after,” Legolas complained gently, bending over to pick up three of the largest pieces before taking his customary seat opposite the desk.  “You are not helping.”


As always, Thranduil was struck by Legolas’ resemblance to his mother, in more than just appearance.  “You have always had an unreasonable amount of faith in me,” he said.


Legolas smiled.  If one did not smile, one had to weep.  “You have never disappointed me,” he insisted. 


Thranduil realized his son must be enduring silent trials of his own.  His prospects of marriage had crumbled long ago.  Now he had lost his mother, and his father was too sunk in his own misery to give him the consideration he deserved.  He must remedy that.  They would weather this together or not at all.


Thranduil pushed the queen’s glass across the desk toward him.  “Do you want some?” he asked sympathetically.


Legolas hesitated, perhaps reconciling a conflict with his better judgment.  “Yes,” he admitted, accepting it without a second thought.


Thranduil sighed deeply, collecting his thoughts.  It would be a daily struggle, certainly, but reminded of all he had yet to live for, he began to believe he could learn to bear it.  He could never abandon their son, the most precious thing left to him.  “Bear with me, Legolas,” he asked.  “Somehow we will find ourselves again on the other side of all this.  That is, if I do not first instill in you all my bad habits.”


Legolas drained his glass with practiced ease.  “You have not managed to spoil me yet, Father,” he said.  “Besides, I deserve at least one indulgence today.”


 “That is true,” Thranduil agreed.  “It is still your day, is it not?  Forgive me if I cannot remember how old you are.  Many happy returns—happier than this year, anyway.  What shame we did not send invitations,” he said ironically.  “Misery does love company.”


“You are the one receiving invitations,” Legolas told him, producing a sealed letter.  “As I understand it, your presence is requested at a council in Imladris in a few weeks’ time, in a strictly advisory capacity.”


“How flattering,” Thranduil said dryly, turning it over and recognizing Elrond’s hand at once.  “Good of them to include us in their counsel at last, let alone to ask our advice.”


“May I trust you to be civil?” Legolas demanded.


For the first time in too long, Thranduil felt a hint of a smile tug at his mouth.  Legolas was awaiting a satisfactory answer with a dour expression on his face which said he would find a way to prevent him from attending if he were not convinced.  Never mind that he had neither the ability or the authority to do any such thing.


“Rest assured,” Thranduil promised, “I shall not disgrace you in the face of all Elvendom.”



Chapter 19 ~ Hopeless Courage




They entered the idyllic valley and rode toward the city without fanfare.  Thranduil had not often been to Imladris but he knew the way, leading his modest entourage astride a dappled stallion as gray as the clouds gathered above them.  They were clad in very somber woodland colors, reflecting the temper of all Eryn Galen.  The posted guards along the road stood aside and let them pass without challenge.


When at last they reached the city gates, a small party had gathered to receive them, heedless of the rumbling thunder.  Thranduil dismounted and accepted Elrond’s formal embrace.  It was surprisingly good to see him and Celebrían again.


“Welcome again to my house, my lord,” Elrond greeted him with sincere warmth.  “It has been much too long.  We were deeply grieved to hear of the queen.  Know that all Imladris mourns with you.”


“Thank you,” Thranduil said, though he could not quite manage a smile.


“Come,” Lady Celebrían beckoned graciously, “let me take you inside.  Lord Elrond does not allow kings to stand in the rain when they might otherwise be sitting by a fire.”


Thranduil moved to follow her with Gwaelas behind, silently thankful the formalities had been brief.  He had neither the will nor the desire to remain artificially pleasant all evening.  They filed past a row of noble onlookers, each of whom offered a shallow bow as he passed.  Thranduil merely glanced at them.  None met his gaze, though he felt their eyes on his back.  At the end of the line, however, a lady with raven hair and startlingly familiar eyes did look up at him.  He stopped in front of her, halted by sudden recognition.


Celebrían noticed the delay and stepped in to make a formal introduction.  “My lord, may I present Lady Elemmiriel of Mithlond, a guest in our house.  My lady, King Thranduil of Greenwood.”


It had been four hundred centuries since they had parted in Lindon.  She plainly remembered him, yet betrayed no hint of familiarity.  “I am honored, my lord,” she said, dipping gracefully.


“The honor is mine,” Thranduil insisted, for lack of anything more eloquent.  He had absolutely no idea what to say to her.  It seemed he would be momentarily spared the difficulty as Celebrían turned once again to lead them inside.  Thranduil followed, but not without a backward glance.


“These will be your quarters while you stay with us,” Celebrían said, becoming more familiar once they were alone.  “It is not the grandest room, I am afraid, but it has always been one of my favorites.  It boasts an unparalleled view of the gardens, which I knew would please Gwaelas.”


“Thank you, Celebrían,” Thranduil said, genuinely appreciative.  “I am sure we shall be quite comfortable.”


“If you want for anything, you have but to ask,” she assured him, risking a quick kindred embrace.  “I shall leave you in peace now.  Doubtless you will want some rest before supper.”


Thranduil forced himself to smile as she left, but it quickly faded.  Rest may be what he needed, but at the moment he could not abide the thought of being alone.  As the rain began to fall in a steady downpour outside, he quickly changed out of his travel clothes and donned a more formal tunic.


“Gwaelas, make certain Dorthaer and the others have been properly settled,” he said, throwing a cloak over his shoulders.  “Then you may do as you please.  I do not expect I shall return before nightfall.”


The ornate corridors were full of the usual bustling of servants and guests.  They did not go particularly far out of their way to acknowledge him, but that was to be expected.  Great names from almost every realm in Middle-earth came to Imladris, and when they did so it was often to find peace and some measure of anonymity, not to be trumpeted from every tower. 


Thranduil was not certain where he was going, letting instinct and very old habits guide him.  He left the house and walked along a covered terrace toward the gardens, then ran briefly through the rain to a graceful pavilion standing alone amidst the holly trees. 


Elemmirë was sitting there, her embroidery in her lap, watching the rain fall in cold sheets outside.  She looked up and smiled as he arrived, but seemed only mildly surprised.  Seeing her brought back a flood of memories, but they had both changed too much for it to make him feel any younger.


“You plainly have not told our hosts that we have met before,” Thranduil observed, shaking some of the rain from his cloak.


“I did not know whether you would remember me,” Elemmirë confessed.  “You were not a king then.”


“I do not forget my friends so easily,” Thranduil assured her.  “I would like to think I may still count you among them.”


“Most assuredly,” she said, inviting him to sit.  He did, though at a decorous distance.


They said nothing for a few moments, but the silence was not necessarily awkward.  So much had happened that it was difficult to know where to begin.  For a brief time they had been young together, their whole lives ahead of them.  Now that perspective seemed very different.


“Elemmirë,” Thranduil asked at last, “why are you still here?”  It was perhaps very forward of him, but they had always been frank with each other.  “I thought you must have returned to the West long ago.”


She frowned slightly, though seemed accustomed to the question.  “You of all people must understand the desire to stand when all others expect you to flee,” she said.  “It may not be the land of my birth, but can I not also feel at home in this Middle-earth?”


“Do you love it so much?” Thranduil asked with a new appreciation.


“As much as you do, perhaps, though you may find it difficult to believe.  Valinor may indeed be paradise, but this is a land of heroism and of nobility which must be earned, sometimes at a dreadful price.  It seems unfit to claim the reward without first making the sacrifice.  I want my sons to understand that.”


Thranduil nodded.  “If everyone had understood that two ages ago, this world may have been a very different place,” he agreed. 


“When we left Aman, no one could promise us that we could ever go back,” Elemmirë continued.  “Now when we do, none of us are the same.  I see it in their faces as they pass through Mithlond, year after year.  This world leaves its mark on you.  I just do not feel it has quite finished leaving its mark on me.”  She glanced up.  “Nor on you.”


Thranduil sighed, feeling the weight of time, memory and responsibility bearing down upon him again.  For a moment he had been pleasantly distracted.  “It seems intent rather upon bleeding me dry,” he said bitterly. 


An enormous clap of thunder shook the valley, giving them both a start before dying away into the steady downpour. 


Elemmirë turned to him with a look of such profound sympathy that he knew what she was thinking.  “I was truly sorry to hear,” she said, gently and without pretense.


Thranduil nodded gratefully.  “We must all bear it as best we can.”


“Will you not follow her?”


“I could never be easy again if I left Greenwood in the state it is in now,” Thranduil confessed.  "My son is a worthy heir, but his best talents lie elsewhere.  In any case,” he said, “Lindóriel loved the Galennath as her own children.  Whatever is to be their end, she wanted me to stay with them.”


The specter of just how wretched that end could be continued to haunt him.  His heart was crying for some support amid all the uncertainty, his loneliness only exacerbated by being away from his companions and from Legolas. 


“I miss my father, Elemmirë,” he confessed at last.  “I miss your father.”


“I am certain they and your courageous queen are all interceding with Tulkas and Oromë on your behalf,” she said with bittersweet resignation.  “They trusted you.  Your friends trust you, and your people trust you.  Trust them enough to trust in yourself.”


 



The storm continued to rage through the night, but even that could not disturb the calm within Elrond’s house.  The fire had faded to embers on the hearth, casting soporific shadows over the room.  Everything was quiet except for the steady falling of the rain.


Thranduil lay awake, too pensive to sleep.  He was still not accustomed to sleeping alone.  Too often he found himself reaching for her in his dreams, only to wake and rediscover the cold reality.  Sometimes it seemed there was nothing he wanted more than to sleep the years away, losing himself in the memory of happier times.  Sometimes it seemed easier not to sleep at all. 


At last, he rose and paced into the far room.  Gwaelas and Dorthaer were sleeping remarkably soundly in their own beds, a luxury the captain of the guard rarely allowed himself.  Apparently, the tranquility of Imladris was doing them both good. 


Together they reflected the two sides of the silvan race.  Thranduil could not help but be deeply appreciative of the gentle devotion of the one, the perilous skill of the other, the tenacious loyalty of both.  Gwaelas had been by his side for more than three thousand years and knew him as intimately as his own family.  Dorthaer had devoted his life to his protection.  Thranduil certainly considered them friends, but when he looked at them he also felt a stirring of the same paternal affection he felt for Legolas.  In many ways they were his family now.


Standing in the shadows like a specter, he took no notice of the passing time.  He belonged to the Galennath more than he had belonged even to the Iathrim, and he loved them with a fiercely protective love which burned brighter than any bittersweet memory of his youth. 


He would never abandon them.




Chapter 20 ~ Hopeless Courage II




The next morning dawned gray.  The clouds had spent their fury during the night, but had not yet quit the valley, hanging low in a mist that had only just begun to lift.  The air smelled of wet earth and leaves, something Thranduil usually found refreshing.  This morning he stood aloof from the others on the open terrace as they awaited Elrond’s arrival, his breakfast sitting in his stomach like a stone.  He already felt uncomfortably scrutinized, though that may have been his imagination.  Gwaelas and Dorthaer had stayed with him as long as they could, and even now he knew they were hovering nearby, just out of earshot.


The others had formed themselves into small groups, milling about and murmuring to one another in subdued voices.  The wizard Mithrandir met his gaze and nodded.  With him was another of his kind, clad in white and with unpleasant piercing eyes.  He was called Curunír.


Celeborn was there with his wife.  He and Thranduil had not yet exchanged so much as a word.  A strange distance had grown between them again which Thranduil in his current frame of mind did not feel inclined to be the first to bridge.  He had heard nothing from him since they had parted in Eregion, almost a lifetime ago.


Lord Gildor was present, along with several other august personages of Elrond’s house whom Thranduil did not recognize.  As usual, he felt a complete outsider in this company, regretting the distant solitude Oropher had sought in Greenwood and at the same time feeling an intense desire to return to it.


When Elrond at last appeared on the terrace, all extraneous conversation immediately ceased.  “Welcome, guests and kinsmen alike,” he said briefly, though the subject of this meeting was too grim to allow much levity.  “I thank you for responding with such alacrity to my invitation.”


The available seats were quickly taken.  Thranduil took the one nearest him, at the end of the semicircle.  Chance or design put Mithrandir beside him.


“As we are all surely aware by now,” Elrond continued, “a nameless evil has appeared in the south of Eryn Galen, called the Necromancer by those who must speak of him, and his pestilence has all but overtaken that wood.  Whatever or whoever it may be, it behooves us to investigate all possibilities.  To that end we are gathered here.”


“Lord Amroth has observed this foul shadow from the time of its inception,” Lady Galadriel interjected.  “At first, he dismissed it as an unfortunate blight on the wood, but in time it was not overgrown, and its insidious spread suggested that it was indeed of evil origin.  Whatever its purpose, it has not yet dared to touch any flower of Lórinand.”


“How far north has the contagion advanced?” asked Curunír.


“It has engulfed the old road and passed well over the mountains,” Mithrandir informed him grimly.  “It may well have overtaken the entire wood were it not for the doughty folk who make their homes there.”


“Doughty folk?” the other asked incredulously.  “Are they not merely Wood-elves?”


Thranduil realized a dour look must have crossed his face, because Elrond hastily introduced him.


“Lord Thranduil, King in the North, has graciously made the journey to advise us on the matter,” he said.  “Tell us what you have observed, my lord, for it concerns you nearest of all.”


“Mithrandir is correct,” Thranduil said flatly.  “The blight spread ever northwards, and we withdrew before it to a more defensible place.  It and the vile creatures which live in its shadow have been halted at our borders and have not been able to shift us further, though we have endured grievous incursions by Orcs.”


“Orcs go in the shadow of many dark things,” Curunír observed.  “Perhaps it is one of the Nine.”


“The Nazgûl have indeed been seeking to establish a stronghold,” Mithrandir confirmed, “and I have encountered them in Mirkwood.”


Thranduil shook his head in spite of himself.  The voice in his dreams had been no illusion, and had certainly not been the work of a mere ringwraith, no matter how terrible they may be.


“Have you some insight to offer, Thranduil?” Galadriel asked, noticing his agitation.  “Please, you may speak freely here.”


Thranduil sighed deeply.  At the risk of appearing presumptuous, he must speak his mind.  “I, too, have seen the wraiths,” he ventured hesitantly, “but for reasons that are my own I cannot believe they alone are the cause of Mirkwood’s ills.”


“You suspect some new sorcerer has arisen?” Curunír asked.


“What I suspect,” Thranduil said, more urgently, “is that he is all too familiar.  Many years past, I had the misfortune to encounter ‘Annatar’ in Ost-en-Edhil.”  Galadriel, Celeborn, and Gildor stiffened in their seats.  “The memory has haunted me.  I recognized his voice in Mordor.  I recognize him now when he speaks in my dreams.  I feel his gaze upon me.  For myself I have no doubt, though I can offer no proof, that Gorthaur has returned to the world.”


“Any return of the Dark Lord would surely not have gone unnoticed,” Galadriel insisted, though she did not seem as certain as she might have liked.  “ Curunír?  Surely not.”


Curunír’s expression softened, and he looked at Thranduil with what could have been pity.  “Any personal dealings with Sauron can tax even the strongest spirit,” he said.  “The loss of the king, your father, can only have exacerbated those sentiments.  Now, my lord, with the untimely death of your queen, may I suggest that—”


“I have not been traumatized into this conclusion,” Thranduil insisted.  “I do not reveal it lightly.  I came to this council because we may require assistance if we are to survive in Mirkwood.”


“None who come to Imladris fail to find succor,” Curunír continued in that maddingly empathetic tone, “though it may not be the sort they expect.  Let the valley clear your mind, my lord, and you may yet have peace in your heart.”


“My heart is of no concern,” Thranduil said, becoming angry now.  “There is a demon defiling our wood.  What action do you, who style yourselves ‘the Wise,’ intend to take?”


“There is no need to take offense, my lord,” Gildor admonished, “nor to give it.”


“I did not come to give offense,” Thranduil said, biting his tongue, “but our plight is dire.  The darkness of Mirkwood grows deeper by the day.  The roads to the south are becoming impassible, and my people are trapped in the north.  I do not know how long we can expect to withstand this foe alone.”


“If your existence in Eryn Galen is so precarious, would it not be better for your people to abandon the wood entirely?” Curunír asked.  “There are many more peaceful places where they may yet settle.  Here in Imladris, or in Lórinand.”


“I have been set adrift in the world many times since the days of Beleriand,” Thranduil countered.  “I would not impose that grief on anyone.  So long as the Galennath intend to defend their homes, I will stand with them.”


“Perhaps it would not be in our best interests to so quickly relinquish the north,” Mithrandir suggested.  “Thranduil may be justified in his concern.  Were this enemy left completely unchallenged in the wood, Forodwaith and Ered Mithrin may soon be lost to us, or indeed everything east of the Hithaeglir.”


“Which enemy do you mean?” Curunír asked pointedly.  “Sauron has not returned, and even if he had, he would be little more than a wraith himself, entirely beneath our concern.  The Nazgûl have not the power even at full strength to topple entire kingdoms of Elves.  I fail to see the urgency or indeed the validity of your predictions.  More likely this Necromancer is but a foul little man dabbling in powers too great for him.  He will soon be consumed by his own machinations.”


“We must be prepared for the possibility.”


“If we would prepare for all possibilities, we would be ever at war.  Content yourself with vigilance and preserve the peace.”


“We are not at peace,” Thranduil interjected.  “We have been under siege for years.”


“And what do you expect to come of your plea for aid?” Curunír demanded.  “The great alliances are dead.  The Elvish armies are sorely depleted and cannot be spared for ill-advised raids against the stronghold of a feckless sorcerer.  Let him have his day and then he will be gone.  If you cannot hold your kingdom against him, that is no one’s affair but your own.”


 



The remainder of the council had not gone any more favorably.  For a moment, Thranduil had been too stunned by the blunt rebuff to say anything.  Moreover, no one else present seemed willing to question Curunír’s conclusion, however sympathetic they may have been.  He did have an insidiously persuasive voice.  Thranduil’s blood had been pounding in his ears too loudly for him to attend to the proceedings any further.


Now he was stalking through the gardens of Imladris, trying to collect his thoughts.  The path ended at the head of a cascading waterfall, affording him an unobstructed view of the vast expanse of the valley.  The raw beauty of Eriador and the roaring of the river helped steady his nerves for a moment. 


No aid would be forthcoming from any of the other realms; the bloodletting of the Last Alliance would not be easily forgotten.  They could possibly disband the kingdom and seek asylum elsewhere, but in his heart Thranduil knew the Galennath would never willingly leave their own wood.  They had been there almost since the dawn of Middle-earth. 


Could this indeed be the doom of everything?  Was Oropher’s legacy to be snuffed out as his life had been, suddenly and ingloriously?  He felt in his heart they were outmatched, whatever the wizards said.  Should they stay and face their ruin, or sacrifice everything to save their lives?


Thranduil slid the diadem off his brow, the one that had been his father’s, the sharp points pricking his hand as he closed it in his fist.  He could not find it within himself to surrender that trust, whatever their end may be.  Besides, he was sick of running.  They had run from Doriath, from Sirion, from Balar, from Lindon, and twice from the south of their own wood.


Fate was stubbornly determined to wipe him off the stage, but he refused to go.  It seemed incredible that there had been a time when all that he ever wanted was to play at being a prince in the gleaming halls of Menegroth.  Had all the incredible events of his life simply been preparation for this moment?  Was this to be his last stand, his final destiny?


“Surely you are not contemplating jumping.”


Thranduil turned away from the waterfall, recognizing the voice instantly.  “Do you think I should?” he asked wryly.


“It would not matter what I think,” Celeborn said, coming to stand beside him.  “You have always kept your own counsel, like your father.”


They let the silence linger between them for a moment.  It was enough to simply be in one another’s company again, that strange distance gone like mist in the morning. 


“You will not be asking anyone for asylum, will you?” Celeborn said at last, knowing the answer.


“I cannot ask them to leave Greenwood,” Thranduil insisted, “and I will not simply abandon them to their fate.  That wood is practically their soul.”


“I understand,” Celeborn said, “however, I cannot help but feel some concern regarding your situation.  I am not yet prepared to accept that Sauron has risen again, though I do not doubt your conviction.  Your suspicions may yet be vindicated.  What then?  In your current position, you lack the sort of ‘assistance’ which may be necessary to mount a successful defense.”


“Do not patronize me,” Thranduil said sourly.  “Celebrimbor’s rings are hidden only from those who lack the wit to see them.”


Celeborn looked away with a frown and the subject was dropped.  “Very well,” he said.  “What do you intend to do, then?”


“I may be outmatched, but I am far from powerless,” Thranduil assured him.  “If the Galennath are willing, we shall exact blood for every inch of ground, though it may be the death of us all.  What did you expect me to do?”


Celeborn unexpectedly favored him with a grim smile.  “I expect conduct befitting the last prince of the Meliannath,” he said, indulging in a rare effusion of kindred pride.  “Stand your ground, give no quarter, and send that fiend back to whatever hell he came from.”


 



It was a cold and crisp morning when Thranduil, Gwaelas and Dorthaer strode down the lamplit promenade to meet their escort and their horses.  They were leaving disappointed, but not completely disheartened.  They still had their pride.


“Lady Celebrían provided us with fresh lembas, my lord,” said Lancaeron.


“That was very gracious of her,” Thranduil smiled, taking the reins.  “You conveyed our thanks, of course.”


“Of course.”


“We may give it to the horses as well.  We must ride like the wind if we are to reach the mountain pass before the snows.”


Gwaelas touched him on the shoulder before he could mount, and Thranduil turned to see a cloaked lady rushing to catch them.  He sighed.  “I shall be but a moment,” he said, giving the reins to Dorthaer.


Elemmirë met him in the shadow of Elrond's house, breathless for a moment, her eyes glinting with unshed tears.  “For shame, my lord,” she said hotly, “that you would skulk away before dawn without bidding farewell to an old friend.”


“Forgive me, my lady,” Thranduil apologized.  “Farewell it must truly be, for I do not expect I will live to see Mithlond again.”


“You are quite determined, then?” she asked, stiffening her voice with an effort.


“My people are determined,” he said, “and only death will take me from them.”


She nodded, though her resolve was tempered with a keen regret that pained him to see.  “Do what you must,” she said, “and when someday we meet again beyond the seas in a place where our griefs are no more, I shall be proud to name you my friend, Thranduil.” 


With that she put her arms around him in an inexcusably informal embrace which he found himself returning without a thought.  They held one another entirely too long, though Thranduil had ceased to care about improprieties.  Her touch did something to relieve the raw wounds on his heart, though he knew it would be brief. 


When at last she released him, Elemmirë’s face was streaked with tears but her features were strong.  “May Tulkas and Oromë ride with you, my lord,” she said.


“May they, indeed.”  Thranduil turned back to his companions, mounted his horse, and in a moment they were gone in a loud clatter of hooves.  His last sight was of her standing in the first frosty rays of dawn, raising her hand in farewell as they rode across the narrow footbridge over the river.  “May they, indeed.”



Chapter 21 ~ Hopeless Courage III




They scarcely spoke during their headlong ride back from Imladris.  Had they not been obliged to rest their horses, Thranduil would probably not have slowed at all.


The first flakes of snow were falling when they reached the west gate and passed beneath the boughs of the wood.  The small garrison, spying the party at a distance, had turned out to greet the king.


“Captain,” Thranduil inquired, dismounting and indicating that the others do the same, “what report do you have for me?”


“Your presence has been sorely missed, my lord,” the captain answered at once.  “Prince Legolas has been obliged to stand the army to repel ever bolder Orc raids.  Warg packs have been seen in greater numbers, and have killed many within the last fortnight.”


Thranduil wanted to spit.  “This excursion has been worse than useless.  We need fresh mounts at once.”


“Yes, my lord.”


While the new horses were being prepared for them, Thranduil availed himself of the small amenities the guardhouse had to offer.  Not forgetting his companions, he poured three cups of a very respectable woodland wine and handed them to Gwaelas and Dorthaer.  “Fell deeds awake, my friends,” he said grimly.  “Let us pray we are equal the task.”


“If one cannot bestir himself to defend his own home, he does not deserve to claim it,” Dorthaer sneered.


“I followed you to Mordor,” Gwaelas said for himself.  “Orcs are no novelty to me.”


Thranduil raised his cup to their bravado.  “Perhaps I should have allowed the two of you to explain to Curunír what mere woodland Elves are capable of.”


“My lord, the horses are ready.”


The three of them threw back their wine and returned to their party outside.  If they went with all speed, they could reach the city by dawn.  The wood, it seemed, was badly in need of a purge.


 



They thundered across the bridge and through the palace gates just as the night lamps were being extinguished, giving the guard no chance to do more than blast the royal call on their hunting horns to signal the king’s return, throwing the population into a frenzy. 


Thranduil dismounted in the corridor and left their frothed and winded horses in the care of the grooms.  “Dorthaer, summon the captains and stand the army outside the gates at once,” he commanded, taking the path toward the throne room with scarcely a pause.  “Lancaeron, summon the lords there as well.” 


As he strode deeper into the heart of his caverns, all previous considerations and preoccupations were forgotten.  He could not mourn Lindóriel any longer, nor would she wish him to, but while he still drew breath he could honor her memory and her sacrifice.  It was cold comfort, but better than none.


Legolas leapt out of the king’s throne at his approach as if it burned him.  “Father!”  They shared a quick martial embrace.  “Dol Guldur has not given us a moment’s peace since your departure.”


“So the guard has informed me,” Thranduil said, unable to suppress a smile even under such dire circumstances.  “My throne becomes you, Legolas, whether you will it or not.  You did well to turn out our forces.  Now, prepare yourself and join the others in the armory.  There is dirty work to be done!”


When he arrived in his own chambers, Thranduil was not surprised to see Gwaelas was ready with the king’s armor.  By this time, they were almost of one mind.


“I had hoped my lord might have time to refresh himself after such a journey,” Gwaelas chided him, securing his leather breastplate.


“Violence can be quite refreshing,” Thranduil assured him, pulling on a pair of stout gloves.  “I know it may not seem so to a gentle soul like yourself, but sometimes there is nothing better.  Bring me the queen’s pennon.”


Gwaelas’ brow furrowed, but he retrieved a bit of the queen’s heraldry from its place on the wall.  Thranduil quickly folded it and thrust it beneath his breastplate, over his heart.  “Attend the wounded when they arrive,” he instructed.


He returned whence he had come with swift strides, already feeling the bloodlust rising hot within him.  All his grief, anxiety, and frustration were forged now into a smoldering rage he was desperate to unleash.


He was nearly at the armory when he saw the brown wizard moving to intercept him.


“I have no time to speak now, Master Radagast,” Thranduil said as the other fell into step beside him.  “Mirkwood has sorely overstepped its bounds.”


“Indeed, my lord,” Radagast agreed.  “It is my intention to assist you in casting it back.”


“Any assistance you can provide will be most welcome,” Thranduil assured him.  “But for you, it seems we shall be alone in the endeavor.”


Legolas was waiting in the armory with several of the King’s Guard when they arrived, all bristling with armor and weapons.  Thranduil quickly selected a bow of his own, and then bade them follow him to the gates.  On the way, they were met by four of his wolves, all of them yipping and yapping at his heels, excited by the prospect of a hunt.


Outside, the fading sward was crowded with those divisions of their army which were not currently dispatched into the wood.  Linhir and Anárion were there, Galadhmir and Luinlas presumably already on duty in the south.  Much of the rest of the population surrounding the capital seemed to be lurking in the trees and peering out of windows, aware that the king had returned and that fell deeds were afoot. 


Thranduil bounded up the hill to stand at the top of the gate so that he might be heard by all.  The sky was thickly blanketed, threatening more snow.


“I see our enemy has pressed his advantage in my absence,” he began grimly, letting his voice carry across the clearing, “that the master of Dol Guldur would now seek to take what remains of our wood from us.  The Wise of this world will not aid us, for they imagine our cause to be hopeless, but I do not.  They believe the Galennath to be unequal the hardship of war, but I do not!”  He was angry now, and made no attempt to hide it.  “We are expected to flee and beg refuge in other lands, but I will not!  There is yet a king in Eryn Galen, and if the Necromancer would have my crown, he must be prepared to take it with my head on a pike!”


A roar of assent rose from the ranks, roused once again from their weary melancholy.


“We shall not rest this day until all the foul creatures of his vanguard are purged and set aflame!” Thranduil continued.  “We shall not suffer their pollution any longer.  Let the forest be cleansed with blood and fire even unto Emyn Duir!”


The ranks dispersed quickly, unleashed with their commanders in a mad dash into the south, prepared to slaughter whatever unsavory beasts could be flushed from cover.


Thranduil was with them, leaping down and charging into the forest with Legolas, Radagast, Dorthaer, and the rest of his guard.  His hounds raised a strident howl into the trees ahead, a harbinger of death which seldom failed to chill even the purest hearts.  Their call was taken up in turn by the others of their breed roaming the forest and dispersed through the army, eventually growing into such a cacophony that all the creatures of the wood fled into the light.


The onset of winter had robbed their quarry of some of their security in the treetops, and great masses of web thick with decaying leaves were plain to see.  The spiders were felled by archers, and the webs set alight with torches.  Enormous egg sacks were cut down and thrown onto hastily constructed pyres to burn with the grotesque corpses of the adults.  It did not take long for word of the purge to reach the forward ranks, and the air was soon thick with curling smoke, the howling of the wolves, and the war cries of angry Elves.


The screams of hawks, falcons and eagles pierced the canopy, unnatural flocks of them circling and diving overhead.  Clouds of black bats took to the air as they were flushed from their caves, but very few escaped the crushing talons above.  Vicious roars of snarling and barking erupted as the hounds baited wargs from their dens.  Trees corrupted beyond hope felt the bite of Elvish axes and crashed to the ground, felled in their dozens to fuel the burning.


It was a brutal and bloody rout, commanded by no one.  The raw fury of the Galennath had been set loose like wildfire in a great heedless plunge toward the mountains.


The midday sun was veiled by smoke when it rose above them, but Thranduil was too enraged to tire.  He was consumed by an insatiable thirst for vengeance which even this reckless violence did little to assuage.  The others kept pace with him, ripping up thorn vines, cutting through the choking undergrowth, and tearing down webs.


A seething mass of spiders as large as boar descended onto their path, determined to defend their eggs.  Thranduil turned his body to the side, allowing Legolas and Dorthaer to let fly their arrows, then struck the curling carcasses into pieces with his sword.  They briefly halted their advance to drag those pieces back to the nearest pyre, then returned for the web-bound tree.


Legolas leapt up into the branches as he was bidden.  Dorthaer tossed his king a flaming limb from the pyre, and Thranduil tossed it up to his son, who set the webs alight.  The web itself would not carry a flame, but the dry leaves caught up in its tangle were its undoing.   The spectacular blaze briefly bathed them in firelight, and left them wreathed in smoke.


 



Legolas dropped from the tree as the fire burned itself out, satisfied that it had not kindled any of its neighbors.  His father turned and plunged once more into the depths of the forest, giving him no choice but to follow. 


The king was relentless, cutting a wide swath of purifying destruction as he drove ever farther south.  Despite his own pent-up anger, Legolas could not help but feel a thrill of excitement as he followed his father into battle, as Thranduil was revealed for the consummate warrior that he was.  There had been little cause for violence during the long peace of Eryn Galen, but Legolas had been drilled severely from childhood in the martial traditions of their past.  Now those skills had purpose, and it was darkly exhilarating to see that he had skill enough to hold his own in Thranduil’s wake.


The entire wood was ringing with the blowing of horns and the baying of the hounds, and it seemed the largest of the beasts had elected now to flee rather than fight.  They came upon several more web-bound trees, the spiders gone, abandoning their young to the flames.  The Woodmen were rousted from their homes by the chaos and lent their swords to the work, sending their women and children behind the lines to assist with the fires.


Time ceased to have any meaning.  With the sky choked with smoke and the forest lit by firelight, none knew day from night.


Legolas had finally exhausted his quiver of arrows.  Thranduil turned and offered him a large handful of his own with a nod, for he had been much too occupied with his sword to draw bow.


A frothing warg crashed out of the brush and struck the king to the ground.  The hounds immediately leapt upon them, but Thranduil had already thrown his weight atop the beast and plunged his dagger into its heart with several heavy blows.


Legolas threw himself in the way of the second warg to fly at them, driving his blade through to the hilt as he too was crushed into the dirt.  Before he could kick free of the body, Thranduil’s fist seized it by the scruff and heaved it aside.


“Come,” the king said gruffly, offering Legolas his hand.  He was bloodied, and the warg’s bite could be clearly seen in the punctures on his leather spaulder, but he seemed otherwise unfazed.  There was also a spark of grim paternal pride in his eyes which Legolas found immensely gratifying.  “We shall make the mountains yet.”


It was during the final assault on Emyn Duir that they met their true foes at last.  A cry went up with the unmistakable shouting of Orcs.  All the captains began blowing their horns, trying to reassemble their soldiers in some kind of order.  Elves surged forward from all throughout the wood, an unofficial company forming itself behind the king.


Legolas and the other archers loosed their shafts as Thranduil and the swordsmen closed the distance, plowing into the Orcs with almost unstoppable force.  The battle was fierce but did not last, for the Orcs were not very many and they were ill-prepared to stem the charge of the Elves.  Their line crumpled and the survivors fled into the hills. 


Thranduil gave chase.  Lord Galadhmir appeared with his company from the west, Lords Linhir and Luinar from the east.  Together they drove the fleeing Orcs off their intended course and into the steep places of the mountains.


The terrain became treacherous and it might have been prudent to give up the chase, but their blood was up and they thought only to press their advantage.  The passes narrowed, forcing many to forge new paths over the rock face.  Legolas leapt to the side and climbed a large outcropping of dark stone, seeking higher ground, and as he crested the summit, he saw that what remained of the Orc band was trapped on a ledge overlooking a sheer drop into the ravine below.  At least a hundred arrows were trained on them from archers like himself, but they all hesitated for a moment.  The soldiers crowded below on the narrow way parted as well as they might as the king thrust his way to the front.


Thranduil stood blocking their escape, the reek of the burning blotting out the sun above him, his bloodied blade drawn.  He was plainly still in a dark temper and whatever touch of madness had driven him there lingered as he held his captives at sword point.  “Name your master,” he demanded in a dreadful voice.  “Or shall I name him impotent and craven?”


The silence was filled only with the crackle of lightning which arced from the filthy clouds.


“Give him answer, foul perversion of Morgoth,” Radagast commanded them.  “The king compels you.”


The Orc nearest them twisted his face into a sneer.  “The king should not be quick to name another craven when he would use his women for battle shields.”


Legolas shot him where he stood, startling the entire company.  His father turned sharply to look, but did not rebuke him.


“Very well,” the king said instead.  “Nameless he shall remain so long as he fears to declare himself to me, wretched master of slaves and shadows.  Return to him now, if you will, and remind him that Thranduil will never relinquish the north.”  He advanced on them with his blade.  “If you reach the falls with your lives, you may keep them, which is already more mercy than I am wont to waste upon your kind.”


The Orcs growled and cursed him in their own speech, but swift arrows felled three of them at once.  The rest flung themselves from the precipice, and each was dashed to death on the pitiless rocks below.


Thranduil said nothing, cleaned his sword upon his cloak, and then turned back whence he had come.


 



It was not until he had descended from Emyn Duir and emerged again into the smokey darkness of the forest that Thranduil allowed the fury to drain out of him.  In its place was left lethargy and gnawing hunger.  Dawn had come once again, and it would be a long, weary walk back to Arthrand Lasgalen.


The last remnants of the purge were still being cleared away and thrown to the fires.  Beyond all hope, a much more pleasant aroma than burnt spider wafted in the air.  The Woodmen’s wives had anticipated the army’s needs, and they were ready with steaming cauldrons of stew.  They searched the pot with special diligence to include a decent piece of meat in the Elvenking’s portion.


Thranduil cradled the bowl in his hands for a moment, just appreciating the warmth of it.  Galadhmir soon appeared out of the trees, and with him their two sons.


“You certainly made your presence known very quickly,” Galadhmir said wryly, receiving his portion of stew in turn. “Can we maintain ourselves as far south as this?”


“Only time can tell,” Thranduil answered.  “This wood is tainted still, but I am satisfied that we have banished the worst of its evils for now.  I would have them as far removed from Arthrand Lasgalen as possible.”


“Is it true that the Wise have refused their aid?” Calenmir demanded, clearly troubled by the rumor.


“That was indeed their decision,” Thranduil confirmed bluntly.  He had accepted it now, and his anger was spent for the moment.  “It is left to us to hold Eryn Galen by our own wiles.  Those who do not imagine themselves equal the task may flee to other realms, but I shall not be numbered among them.”  He frowned.  “Legolas, you are very quiet.”


“I must apologize for killing the Orc out of turn, Father,” he said.  “It was impetuous and reckless of me.”


Thranduil gave him a knowing smile.  “Save your extremely correct and equally insincere apologies,” he said.  “You merely spared him my sword.  Come, you and Calenmir must stop feeling sorry for yourselves and get something to eat while you still may.”


“What is it?”


“I am not entirely certain,” Thranduil admitted, peering into the mixture of broth and root vegetables.  “Rabbit, I believe.”


 



The forest was a much more peaceful place as they walked back into the north.  It had not yet shed all of its grim shadow, but it had certainly been made cleaner by their efforts.  Everywhere the pyres were reduced to smoldering embers in great pits of ash and bone.  Silent plumes of smoke mingled with flurries of new snow which would soon blanket the scarred landscape.


“I have made my home on the western edge of the wood, my lord,” Radagast said, keeping pace with Thranduil.  “From Rhosgobel I shall keep a wary eye upon the doings of Dol Guldur, and endeavor to keep you abreast of what moves in the south.”


“I shall be glad of whatever observations you can provide, Master Radagast,” Thranduil assured him. 


“I may be of greater assistance yet,” the wizard continued.  “The birds are my allies, and the great eagles are my eyes.  I shall teach you their speech if you wish, that you may command them if you will.”


Thranduil regarded him with renewed interest.  “Yes, Mithrandir bade me learn from you,” he said.  “I suppose it was you who summoned the falcons?  Most impressive.  Be my guest in Lasgalen for a time and teach me what you will.”


Mithrandir had not been wrong when he had counseled him to accept whatever assistance might be offered him.  Despite his bravado, Thranduil suspected they would need a great deal more than raw courage if they were not to be swept out of the wood like vermin before a fire.


When they had at last arrived back at the caverns, Thranduil warned his lords and commanders that he would allow them a short time to refresh themselves before he expected to see them in council.  There were many plans in his mind that he wished put into motion immediately.  


In a mere half hour, clean and dressed in a soft but sturdy warrior’s jerkin, Thranduil returned to the main hall.  Legolas, Galadhmir and Brilthor were waiting for him as he ascended the stairway and resumed his throne.  It was not long before they were joined by Linhir, Anárion, Luinlas and Noruvion.  Dorthaer came as well with a company of his commanders.


“I fear the peace we have enjoyed in Eryn Galen is now lost beyond all hope,” Thranduil told them.  “As many of you have heard or guessed, the Wise of this world already consider us lost, and no aid of theirs shall be forthcoming, save perhaps from Mithrandir and Radagast.”


They all regarded him in grim silence.  There was no fear or dismay on their faces, only a dispassionate dread.


“If we are to survive in Mirkwood,” he continued, “we must adapt to a much darker life.  I shall stay and fight the long siege, but I cannot compel any others to do so.  If anyone feels he is unable to face a life in the shadow of the Necromancer, he may go without shame to seek his peace elsewhere.  I cannot promise happiness for those who remain, but only my loyalty, for I shall not leave Rhovanion again while the shadow endures.”


No one spoke.  For a time, it seemed no one dared to speak.  It was at once the end of everything they had known and the beginning of a bleak new age.  For a moment they stood on the brink, asked to choose their fates.


“This is our wood,” Dorthaer said at last, his dark eyes aflame with the tenacious pride of the silvan people.  “It has been our wood since before the moonrise, bought with the blood of our fathers, for which they forsook even the call to the Immortal West.  We have never looked to others to defend it.  The Wise understand little if they expect us to surrender it now.”


“It was not lightly that I gave my lordship over to our Sindarin kings,” Brilthor said for himself.  “If this son of Doriath will remain in Eryn Galen to the last, how can we do less?”


“You have been our brother since the ruin of the Elder Days,” Galadhmir said.  “Whatever our peril, we shall meet it with you.”


“It is no small thing to challenge an enemy about whom we know so little,” Thranduil warned them.


“The Necromancer concerns me not at all,” Legolas said bitterly.  “Let him attempt to break us if he will.  You are my father and my king, and this is the land of my birth.  Life elsewhere would be meaningless.”


Though his heart swelled with pride, Thranduil did not allow himself to express it.  “So be it,” he said instead.  “There is much to be done, and I fear our time has run very short.  Luinlas, you will oversee the organization of a new stockpile of arms and the refitting of the army.  Linhir, you will secure the materials necessary to make this possible; empty the treasuries if you must.  Brilthor, see that everyone indeed understands the choice to remain or to depart; if any are to go, I would have them travel together for their protection.  Galadhmir and Anárion, dispatch fresh patrols throughout the territory north of Emyn Duir lest we forfeit all we have gained today.  Report to me early and often.”


They dispersed to their tasks, but Legolas lingered a moment.  His features were set with fierce determination, but a vestige of doubt remained.  “Are we outmatched, Father?” he asked.  He wanted the truth, but it was plain that it would in no way alter his decision to stay.


Thranduil sighed.  “I cannot say,” he admitted.  “Perhaps no one can.  Even if our enemy is indeed the vanquished lord of Mordor, I cannot know if he is reduced to a shadow of his former evil or if he is in fact gaining strength enough to rout us.  We must play for time until we know which it may be.  He chooses to remain nameless for now, feigning perhaps an insignificance which will encourage great lords to neglect him.   Sauron has ever been a deceiver.”


“And if the Dark Lord should at last reveal himself,” Legolas asked, “his power restored, intent upon taking the north, would you leave then?”


“No.  My place is here, even if only to defend the last retreat.  He shall never take the wood uncontested while I yet draw breath, whatever his name.”


“Then I shall stay with you,” Legolas said, dreadfully earnest, “even unto certain death.”


Thranduil put a hand on his son’s shoulder, touched by his devotion.  “Even death is rarely certain,” he said, “and there is much we can do yet before we are brought to such a pass.  It could be that even we are surprised by what strength lies in our hearts when we are put to the test.  But, if indeed we should come to that final doom from which there is no escaping, and we must make an end worthy of immortal memory, I shall be very glad of your company, Legolas.”


 



The king’s instruction regarding those who wished to flee the encroaching shadow was received with mixed emotions.  Their love for their home ran very deep, but some were already scarred beyond all healing Greenwood could provide.   A party of nearly one hundred quickly gathered in the capital whence they would be led by Lady Illuiniel across Eriador to the havens at Mithlond and there take ship into the West.  The snows would not hold much longer, and the mountains would soon be impassible for another season.


Legolas sullenly kept his own company on the summit of their great hill, feeling too wretched at heart to care about the frosty bite of the wind on his face.  He wanted nothing to do with the tearful farewells far below.  There was a reason Lady Illuiniel had been willing to lead that party, to leave the Lasgalen of the Oropherionnath and be separated from her husband and son.  Her daughter, Lorivanneth, was among them.


Lorivanneth had never completely recovered after her bestial treatment by the Orcs.  Legolas had tried to comfort her in every way he knew how, but she had withdrawn at every turn, too ashamed to be close to him.  He had waited patiently for years, hoping time would heal the wounds he could not, stung by her sudden inability or unwillingness to trust him.  Now, without so much as a word to him, she had determined to seek her peace elsewhere.  He had suffered their final parting when their betrothal was officially broken, and he would not endure it again.


Through the barren winter trees, he could see the column as it began winding its way onto the forest road.  He wanted to feel nothing, to be as cold as the north wind.  He was not entirely successful.  He could not help being angry.


At length, his father found him there.  Thranduil came alone, stood a few paces distant, and left him undisturbed for a time. 


“I wish you could have parted on better terms,” the king said at last.


“That was more by her will than mine,” Legolas complained.  “I would not have been parted at all.”


“Do not judge her too harshly,” Thranduil said gently, coming to stand beside him.  “Not everyone’s trials are the same.  Something was taken from her which she had intended to give to you.  Until she finds a way to be whole again, she cannot be bound to anyone.”


Legolas said nothing, watching as the column gradually became indistinguishable amid the forest.  He could not comprehend how so intimate an understanding could have been brought to naught so quickly, resentment still the only solace for his own grief.


“If you cannot forgive her now,” his father said, “it will be enough that you find it in your heart to pity her.  The malice of Morgoth continues to ruin many beautiful things long after he has gone.”



Chapter 22 ~ Winds of Ruin




There was no time now in all the woodland realm for the indulgence of grief, despair, or excessive melancholy of any sort.  Everyone applied himself tirelessly to his accustomed industry, soldiers, scouts, builders, tanners, coopers, bowyers, fletchers, armorers, smiths.  They drowned their sorrows in productivity, and eventually had achieved such a measure of success that many began to feel an unexpected tingle of optimism.


Their armories were full, their soldiers resplendent.  The bounties of the forest were gathered and hoarded by each household against leaner times to come.  Miraculously, the evils of Mirkwood seemed chastened after the great purge and troubled them little for a few years, allowing them time to prepare.  Any creatures of Dol Guldur which dared appear north of the mountains were swiftly dispatched.


The King was so pleased by their diligence that a harvest festival of special magnificence was declared to reward their labors.  Everyone welcomed the chance to forget their cares for a fortnight and enjoy a well-earned celebration.  The children among them prepared for the event with special anticipation, for it was widely declared that the best archer among them would be permitted to ride with the King when he next inspected the scouts at their southern posts.


There was no excess of gold to be spent on such frivolities, especially after the rearmament, but the wood could provide everything they would need.  It was an excellent excuse for the Galennath to reacquaint themselves with their deep silvan roots. 


The day of the festival dawned gray and overcast, but that did nothing to dampen anyone’s spirits.  The trees were ablaze with autumn color and hung with jaunty streamers and flags.  Great winter gourds had been elaborately carved into lanterns after their seeds had been harvested.  Long tables festooned with berries and strands of ivy were set in the great clearing near the royal halls, and heavy iron spits fit for the largest game were secured over open fire pits.  The music of many voices and instruments carried through the forest on the crisp morning air as the glad crowd grew, and the woodland halls resounded with the vigorous beat of drums.


A roar of merriment greeted the return of the King’s hunting party.  Three boar and two enormous stags were quickly skinned and mounted on the spits, and very soon the river valley was flooded with the fabulous aroma of roasting meat and fresh herbs.


There was much singing and dancing to many old silvan songs which had either been remembered or learned anew for the occasion.  The old tongue was not much spoken anymore even in the farthest reaches of the north, and the wild early days of Greenwood before the reign of Oropher were recalled with much nostalgia but with no regret. 


At midday, the King went to inspect the group of young archers Legolas had gathered at the range which had been prepared for them.  There were thirty-four in all, their ages apparently ranging from fifteen years to five.  They were all dressed in their best with ribbons plaited into their hair, but their flinty expressions made it clear the competition would be fierce.


“I hear we have some very keen eyes among us,” Thranduil said, smiling down at them.


“Some of the best,” Legolas confirmed.  “With their discipline I suspect each of them will be a master in time.  But sadly, there can be only one champion today.”


“Indeed,” Thranduil agreed.  “Let us see who that may be.  Archers, nock your arrows.”


All brought their small bows to bear and took careful aim at a row of apples set upon posts downrange.  Anxious parents in the crowd clasped their hands and bit their tongues. 


“Loose!” Legolas commanded.


All two dozen shafts flew with startling accuracy, and the apples were slaughtered.  Scores were tallied and the arrows retrieved.  A second row of apples was placed.


There were several varieties of the same sort of stationary target at different distances afield.  Every three rounds two competitors were eliminated.  When there were only six remaining, Legolas and the other master archers began throwing apples into the range to be shot on the fly.  Thranduil was genuinely impressed by the skill of such young children, although he supposed he had been doing much the same thing at their age.  That was so long ago it was difficult to remember.


In the end, it was a precocious girl of only eight summers who won the day with a near perfect score.  Her mother and father were clearly ecstatic, but she seemed confident enough to take her victory in stride and spared a moment to commend the skill of the older boy she had bested.


“Very impressive, young lady,” Thranduil congratulated her.  “What is your name?”


“I am Caladwen, my lord,” she said, impeccably correct in her address, and apparently reluctant to look up from his boots now that it came to it.  She did not stand even as tall as his belt. 


“You have great promise, Caladwen,” Thranduil said, dropping to his knee to better meet her gaze.  “Now, as you have won the honor of my company, you had best seek leave of your parents.  We are soon expected elsewhere.”


Caladwen looked back toward her mother and father, both of whom indicated by eager gesticulation that she should accompany the King.  She turned back to him with a smile, encouraged by his easy manner.  “I may go with you,” she confirmed.


“Excellent.”  Thranduil stood again and bid her follow as he returned to the main clearing.  “Secure your bow, dearheart.”


They arrived back at the royal table not a moment too soon.  The first portions of meat were being cut and prepared for presentation to the King and his lords, accompanied by wild mushrooms, yams and onions.  It was not very refined, but it was but unquestionably delicious.  Thranduil sat with Legolas at his right and little Caladwen at his left in the place once reserved for the Queen.  Many of her peers eyed her with obvious envy from their less exalted places on the grass.


Despite the lighthearted festivity all around them, Thranduil suddenly noticed a sour sort of apprehension growing in his mind once again, unpleasantly familiar even after the recent quiet years.  He scowled up at the sky.  The bank of heavy autumn cloud to the south had begun growing darker at an almost alarming rate.  It would be a pity to see their festival drowned for an afternoon, but he had no doubt the merrymaking would stubbornly go ahead.  The silvan Elves did not allow a bit of rain to spoil their amusements. 


“Why is your crown made of beech leaves, my lord?” Caladwen asked, startling Thranduil out of his own thoughts.  “I have always preferred maple.”


Legolas nearly choked on his food as he stifled a laugh for his father’s sake.  Even Thranduil had to admit that her temerity was not wholly unamusing.


“I believe you have attended your archery at the expense of your history, Caladwen,” he chided her gently.  He removed his crown for a moment to allow her to examine it more closely, the cold flash and fire of diamonds set amid leaves of white gold.  “They were fashioned in the likeness of beech leaves to honor Oropher, the first King of Eryn Galen.  This crown was made for him, as the one Legolas wears was once mine.”  She moved to touch it, but Thranduil swiftly replaced it on his brow.  “They are the chief heirlooms of our house, and shall be so long as the memory of Oropher endures.”


Caladwen looked thoughtful, apparently satisfied with his answer.  “They are very fine,” she allowed, “but if I should become a queen, I should still prefer maple.”


“When you are a queen, you may have whatever crown you wish,” Thranduil conceded.


After the meal, it was time to choose a champion from among the most skillful bakers in the realm.  The King and his young companion were plied with many delightful offerings including a spiral seed cake, baked apples, a honey and egg loaf with sweet wine syrup, rolled pastries filled with nut paste and glazed with honeyed wine, apple and pear tarts, honey rosewater cakes, and many other dainties.  The King was perhaps unfairly biased toward those which reminded him of the Queen’s rose gardens, but Caladwen argued tenaciously in the cause of her favorite, a honey hazelnut pastry.  After much debate, Thranduil at last relented in favor of the hazelnuts, awarding their maker an enormous uncut sapphire which had been relinquished by the riverbed.


The music of dancing and drumming renewed itself with greater exuberance, but by now Thranduil was not the only one who had noticed the sinister shift in the weather.  They were not unprepared, and the team charged with such precautions began swiftly clearing away the uneaten food to temporary shelter, erecting pavilions for those who did not care to be soaked, and tenting the bonfire wood.


The vanguard of the storm came with stiff winds as the clouds cast the wood in a premature twilight.  The air smelled damp, and deep rumbling thunder seemed to warn them off the green.


“My lord.”  Dorthaer touched Thranduil discreetly on the shoulder.  “The scouts fear this is no ordinary storm.  It began yesterday as a fume above Dol Guldur.”


Thranduil frowned.  That would explain his visceral disquiet, but indeed very little else.  “It seems rather petty, even for our unpleasant neighbor, to take such trouble to spoil our festivities with rain,” he said, genuinely puzzled.  He seized his glass and the unfinished bottle of wine and stood from the table.  “Come, Legolas, Caladwen.  I shall not give him the satisfaction of seeing me drenched.”


The King and his companions took shelter in a large woodland house which stood nearby, and they were not the only ones.  As expected, the residents were more than happy to accommodate the temporary change of venue, and the revelry continued much as it had before.  An icy rain began falling in sheets outside, but inside it was all firelight, music and laughter.  A lively dance sprang up in the center of the room with much clapping and chanting from the captive audience.  Thranduil sat Caladwen on his lap to make the most of the cramped conditions.


“One might think you wish to make me jealous,” Legolas joked, obligingly refilling his father’s glass.


“Perish the thought,” Thranduil laughed.  “Although, you had best watch yourself.  She seems spirited enough to replace you if ever you should cross me.”


Thunder exploded and rumbled through the wood, earning little more than defiant cheers and applause from the Elves.  If indeed it was a contrivance of the Necromancer, they were more determined than ever to pay it little mind.


But after an hour of torrential rain and the incessant crackle of lightning, their buoyant spirits at last began to falter along with the supply of food and wine.  Seeing tempers beginning to fray in the crowded space, a minstrel struck up a ballad on her harp, pacifying everyone for the moment with the tales of Eryn Galen in the Elder Days.  But even her fingers failed when the drumming of the rain on the roof was suddenly joined by the hard and sharp sounds of several large hailstones striking the house.


Thranduil frowned.  The storm was apparently more serious than any of them had anticipated.  Everyone jumped as a glass window shattered and a hailstone the size of a large apple rolled across the floor.  Those nearest hurried to block the rain with cloth as an enormous peal of thunder shook the ground.  It seemed their defiance had not gone unnoticed.


No one spoke.  The increasingly violent assault of the ice upon the roof planks made it difficult to hear anything else.  Another window shattered.  Thranduil shared a grim look with Legolas, and Caladwen tentatively wrapped her small arms around him.  There was nothing to do but wait.


The next moment all of them flinched as their ears congested, as if the very life breath of the room had been stolen away. 


The house blew apart and all light vanished.  There was no time to think or even to scream.  There was only the black maelstrom of rain and hail, the deafening roar of the wind and the blinding flash of lightning.  Stunned, Thranduil knew only that he was pinned against the cold roots of a tree and that he still held Caladwen crushed against his chest.  He shielded her as best he could as they were battered by hailstones.  The incredible suffocating force of the wind threatened to tear her away, but he braced for a fight.  Something clubbed him hard across the shoulder as it blew past.  Then again, across the back of his ribs.


“Enough!” he howled into the storm, his voice completely lost in the violence.


He could feel Caladwen sobbing, though he could not hear her.  Everything was slick and wet, but he could smell blood amid the broken wood and churned earth.  The worst of the onslaught soon passed them by, but they could still hear that impassive roar for several long moments as the whirlwind continued to carve its path of destruction like a malevolent finger from the depths of Dol Guldur.


Mercifully, it was not long afterward that the hail slowed and finally ceased, leaving the forest strewn with dirty ice.  The winds softened and the clouds lifted, at last allowing some pallid light to filter through.  Thranduil was almost surprised to remember that it was barely midday.  He cautiously lifted his head and found himself thirty yards from where the house had once stood, now a wreck of broken timbers and ruined furniture.


Caladwen was still crying.  “Hush, child,” Thranduil said gently.  “You must be brave if you are to be an archer of mine.  Get up if you can.”


She wriggled away from him and managed to stand, apparently not seriously hurt despite the smear of blood on her face. 


Thranduil did not know at once whether he was injured or not.  Everything hurt after his bruising by the ice.  He hauled himself up on his arms and began pushing a broken table and part of a roof off his legs. 


The moaning of the wounded and the dying began rising from the wreckage.  Thranduil surveyed the damage in silence for a moment, shocked and sickened.  The meadow was unrecognizable.  Trees were twisted and broken in a wide swath to the north and south, all structures reduced to matchsticks.  The dogs were mincing through the destruction, bedraggled and stunned.  Horses were braying.  Survivors were calling desperately for their loved ones.  Sodden festival decorations were scattered about the field and tangled in the branches.  There were bodies everywhere, most still clinging to life, but several battered to death.


“Father!” Legolas called, his voice quavering with relief and suppressed panic.  He had apparently been thrown nearby, and hurried to join them.  He was covered with mud and grime, but otherwise little the worse for wear.


“Ai, Legolas,” Thranduil sighed as his son knelt beside him, experiencing the same flood of anxious gratitude at the sight of him.  “Help me out.”


With Legolas’ assistance, Thranduil was at last able to completely free his legs and stumble upright, unbroken but not unbloodied. 


“Take her away from here,” he said, indicating Caladwen, who stood staring blankly at the field of death.  “See her safely to the palace, and roust anyone there to come and recover our wounded.”


Legolas nodded without a word, seemingly grateful to have clear instructions amid the chaos.  He took Caladwen in hand and led her quickly away.


Several others were climbing free now, and Thranduil gathered them into a coordinated rescue effort.  Horses were brought to help shift and drag away large fallen trees and branches in order to reach those who were trapped.  There were no bandages yet, but when the King began to tear strips from his undertunic for dressings and tourniquets, everyone else did likewise.  The shredded pavilions were cut into makeshift stretchers for the wounded and shrouds for the dead.  The bodies were laid in rows at the edge of the field, some covered and others not as the supply of canvas ran short.


Thranduil was no stranger to death, but the waste of the young haunted him.  He was keenly reminded of Legolas as he lifted and carried away the broken body of a small boy.  He remembered him from the archery tournament mere hours earlier, but could not recall his name.  He laid him with the other lost children, four thus far, bitterly resentful of the frailty of life and his inability to right these senseless wrongs.  He might have wept with the grieving parents had he not felt so many eyes upon him.  He was the King, and he could not afford the luxury of grief just yet.


The recovery of the victims went on until dark.  Then lanterns were hung in the broken trees and parties of searchers continued combing the wood with torches and dogs.  Thranduil was prepared to continue supervising these efforts through the night, but Linhir approached him with Dorthaer and Brilthor.


“My lord,” Linhir said grimly, “I have been inspecting the damage.  The secondary storehouses have been utterly destroyed.  Many families have lost their caches entirely.  I fear we shall be on extremely short rations this winter if a solution cannot be found.”


Thranduil growled in exasperation, but after a moment he regained his composure.  “Show me what we have in reserve,” he said.


Together they returned to the palace cellars, which were fully stocked against the lean months to come.  There were entire chambers of well-ordered sacks upon sacks of acorns, beechnuts, chestnuts, hazel and hickory nuts, barrels of apples, dried pears and berries, jars of honeycomb and great wheels of cheese.  There were extensive stores of dried game meat, boar, venison, rabbit and pheasant, as well as a generous supply of the more perishable winter vegetables, yams, turnips, onions, mushrooms, and gourds.  There was also their last supply of the precious grain they acquired from the Northmen beyond the wood.  It all seemed very impressive until Thranduil considered attempting to feed a large portion of the population with it.


“Shall we attempt to purchase more provisions before the snows?” Galadhmir asked, coming to join them.


“With what?” Thranduil asked, extremely candidly.  “The treasuries are spent, as Linhir well knows.  We bought a lovely army for ourselves, but we cannot eat our swords.” 


“We know how to endure a poor winter if we must,” Brilthor assured him, perhaps with more confidence that he genuinely felt.


“I am loath to rely upon our celebrated powers of endurance unless at the last need,” Thranduil said.  “I fear we must fall upon the mercy of our neighbors and trust that their harvests were plentiful.  Dorthaer, send messengers to Esgaroth to make inquiries.”  Esgaroth was little more than a rude fishing village of Men upon the lake beyond their eastern border, but it was what passed for a center of trade in those times.  “Linhir, see that our kitchens turn out hot meals for all involved for the duration of the recovery, and distribute such provisions as you must to those who have none.  No one need go hungry yet.”


Upstairs, the atmosphere inside the caverns was busy and confused.  The wounded had been placed in every available bed, indeed in every available open space, sheltered from the elements outside.  The healers were overwhelmed, assisted here and there by friends and family of the victims.  Thranduil found Legolas there, just returned with a search party, and snagged him by the arm.


“What of Caladwen?” he asked.


“She is here with her parents,” Legolas confirmed.  “Her father is among the wounded, but he seems to be in no danger.”


“That at least is fortunate,” Thranduil said.  “Keep alert; I shall be expecting messengers to return from Esgaroth.  Inform me the moment they arrive.”


 



The night passed in a blur of activity.  An exhaustive role of names had been compiled from many quarters of those who had been present within the most violent path of the storm.  Living or dead, they were all finally accounted for by first light.  Legolas and Linhir had been given the final authority there, the representative of the King and the keeper of all the most recent maps of the area.  The King himself spent the night alone at the summit of the hill in silent contention with their enemy to the south.  It was lonely work, but it was also the one task that could not be delegated.


With all the victims recovered, the monumental task of clearing away the debris now began.  Legolas rode the length and breadth of the devastation, ordering and supervising the effort.  It was slow going, separating jumbled household items from the general detritus, but they salvaged what they could.  Before noon, he was gratified to see his father riding out to join him.


“What moves in the south?” Legolas asked as the King drew up alongside him. 


“Very little,” Thranduil answered.  He looked worn, and had not yet taken the time to change his torn and soiled clothes.  Few of them had.  “He avoided my gaze, but could not escape entirely.  This effort has sapped him, and I dare to hope we may be unmolested for some time before he recovers his strength.”


“Might we dare to assault Dol Guldur itself?” Legolas suggested.  “Our army is as ready as it may ever be, and I dare say eager to fight.”


“But what is our splendid army to eat?” Thranduil asked pointedly.  “I fear any march into the south would reap much grief and precious little reward, especially with the shortages we face now.  Even weakened, we cannot know what new devilry the Necromancer may yet hold in reserve for us.  We shall defend our borders, but risk no more.”


Legolas frowned and swallowed his battle lust.  He knew his father well enough to recognize that Thranduil was angry as well, but too tired now to rage.  His judgment was cold and sober, and made perfect sense when Legolas remembered that their objective was not to conquer Dol Guldur but to outlast it.  There was not much glory in that plan, but a great deal of prudence.


Their conversation was interrupted by a runner who came sprinting towards them over the grass.


“My lords!” he said, slightly winded.  “Your messengers have returned from Esgaroth.”


“So soon?” Thranduil asked, incredulous.  “That may yet bode good or ill.  Come, Legolas.”  He turned his horse briskly back toward the boat landing, Legolas following close behind.


They arrived at the riverside just as the envoys were disembarking with some surprising companions.  Three formidable Dwarves climbed ashore after them, clad in leather armor with sufficient gold and jewels to denote some considerable rank within their own society.  They seemed to have already made comments enough to each other in their own tongue, and now waited silently to be presented to no one less than the Elvenking himself.


“My lord,” the envoy explained, “these Dwarves are traders from Erebor.  They and the others of their company have many barges loaded with grain and other provisions waiting at Esgaroth.  They have come to consider your offer.”


“Welcome, then, my lords of Erebor,” Thranduil said stiffly, perhaps considering just what sort of offer he would be able to make.  He managed to carry himself with as much gravity as ever despite his disheveled appearance.  “Come refresh yourselves, and we shall discuss terms.”


By quiet command of the King, a long table with chairs was set in the dappled sun behind the hill in full view of the ruin wrought by the storm.  The Dwarves were supplied with wine, bread, cheese, and an entire leg of the precious dry-cured boar.  They were content to enjoy their meal for a time, openly marveling at the damage done to the wood.  Rumor of their presence clearly spread like wildfire, and the Lords Anárion, Linhir, and Galadhmir gathered nearby to observe the negotiations. 


Finally, when the Dwarves had nearly carved the ham down to the bone, the most impressive one of them addressed their hosts.


“It seems your hospitality has been much underrated, Lord Thranduil,” he said with a satisfied smile.  “I am Frár, and these brutes are my brothers, Nár and Náin.  We have been told by your people that the storm yesterday left you in some difficulty.  In consideration of your plight, we are prepared to hold the goods in Lake-town for you if you can at least match what the fishermen would pay.”


Thranduil’s eyes narrowed severely.  Perhaps he had never really harbored much hope of charitable compassion from Dwarves, but all such possibility had surely vanished now.


 “We may not be in a position at present to meet your price,” the King informed him with an effort.  It was clearly difficult for him to admit the truth of their circumstances to outsiders.  “Perhaps we may yet come to some arrangement.”


“I have not made my fortune by dealing in ‘arrangements,’” Frár insisted, dismissing the notion immediately.  “Do not play coy with me, my lord.  You can either meet my price now or pay a dearer one later.  It is not our concern if you cannot protect yourselves from a bit of wind and rain.”


Thranduil was furious now, though he remained absolutely still.  Legolas had to stop himself from instinctively taking a step back.  Several tense moments passed, and then the King gave quiet and very deliberate direction to the Guardsman Lancaeron, who left immediately.


The ominous silence remained unbroken until Lancaeron returned bearing a wooden chest.  He set it heavily upon the table in front of the Dwarves and then stepped back.  They opened it and quickly took stock of its contents, gold and silver coins and a few loose gems.  Legolas swallowed hard, knowing full well that was the absolute last gasp of the fabled wealth of Lasgalen.


The hardened traders seemed unimpressed.  “A bit short yet,” Frár decreed.  “You will all be tightening your belts come midwinter after what that will fetch you.”


There was another long and uncomfortable silence.  Legolas could feel several emotions roiling hot beneath his father’s serene facade.  At last, the King spoke to Gwaelas, who by now was hovering at his shoulder.  Gwaelas immediately seemed distressed, but then he left upon his errand, obeying without question.


While they awaited Gwaelas’ return, the Dwarves availed themselves of what remained of the wine.  The cellarer turned a questioning glance upon the King who scowled and made a short and sharp motion with his hand, obviously determined that their impudent guests should not enjoy any more of his best vintage.


Gwaelas reappeared looking rather desolate and carrying a large wooden jewel box which he gave to the King.  Thranduil held it for a moment, obviously intensely reluctant to part with it.  Then he set it down upon the table and lifted the lid.


A collective gasp of dismay rose from those gathered there.  The Queen’s crown gleamed in the sunlight, ageless and perfect, a hundred white gems sparkling in their settings.  Without a word, Thranduil removed his own crown and set it down as well.  He then leveled an expectant glance upon his son.


Legolas had almost forgotten he was still wearing his own brilliant circlet.  He removed it with a sigh and placed it with the others.  Linhir, Anárion and Galadhmir, rather than wait for it to be required of them, quietly did the same.


The silence was palpable as it hung over the valley.  Even the Dwarves recognized the enormity of the gesture, and finally seemed to believe the Elves were indeed as desperate as they claimed.  Their flinty expressions softened and they took counsel among themselves for a moment.


“We have agreed,” Frár said at last.  “Your terms are acceptable.  We shall deliver the barges without delay.”


“See that you do.”  Thranduil’s expression was thunderous as he turned to take his leave.  “My people will escort you back to Esgaroth.”


 



The Dwarves were true to their word, and several large barges arrived in a timely manner loaded with generous supplies of spelt, oats, barley and shelling beans with bales of wheat grass for the horses and other livestock.  Thranduil watched as they were unloaded, hoping the sight of what had been so dearly bought would salve the wound.


Galadhmir found him there and offered the silent support of his company, as he had ever done.  His presence was more comforting than anything else could have been in that moment, a reminder of a family legacy far more precious than Oropher’s heirlooms. 


“It was a wrench to let them go,” Galadhmir said, knowing his thoughts, “especially hers.”


“Lindóriel would have given her jewels freely,” Thranduil insisted.  “I could do no less on her behalf.”


“She did love this place,” Galadhmir smiled, “and these people.  I always believed she felt more at home here than she ever did elsewhere.”


A swell of bittersweet melancholy came over Thranduil then, all fond memories now tainted with grief.  He almost began to say he was glad she would be spared the sorrows and hardships of Mirkwood, or that it was best that her spirit was at peace elsewhere, but he did not believe a word of it.  He still wanted her beside him, yearned for her intimate companionship each day, convinced she would have risen to their new challenges as well as any of them. 


“Perhaps she is there to gather our dead as she hoped, somewhere beyond the sunset,” Galadhmir wondered aloud.


Thranduil managed to smile at the thought.  “She would like that,” he agreed. 


Galadhmir seemed pleased by his change of mood.  “No more dreary thoughts,” he admonished his brother.  “Dol Guldur has blown itself out for a time, and you have averted a famine before it truly began.  Our situation is not nearly so grim as it might yet have been.”


“It came much nearer disaster than I would have liked,” Thranduil countered, “and it has left us utterly destitute.  It is most uncomfortable, and I am determined never to be so again.”


“I have no doubt you will put it right somehow,” Galadhmir said.  “You always do.  Now, come to supper; you have earned it.”


Thranduil obliged, leaving the unloading of the barges to those who knew the job best. 


Their halls were still functioning as both a hospital and as a shelter for those who had been rendered temporarily homeless.  Thranduil slowed their pace for a time, taking a moment to glance at each bed as they passed.  Though some injuries were indeed serious, it seemed unlikely that any more would die.  Given time and encouragement, their kind could recover from all but the most grievous wounds.


Legolas was waiting for them at table with a few others of the household.  He seemed in unexpectedly good spirits as they all stood to receive the King.


“You have just missed your little archer,” he said brightly, “but she left a gift for you.”


Thranduil rounded the table and found the endearing object in his chair — a carefully crafted circlet of green twigs woven with red berries and autumn maple leaves. 





Chapter 23 ~ Holding the North




“Thranduil,” Noruvion said gruffly, “if I had a silver piece for every time I told you to sit down and hold still, I would be very wealthy.  Be easy and allow me to do my work.”


“I am hardly at death’s door,” Thranduil complained, reluctantly submitting to the master healer’s attentions.  “There is no need to be so anxious.”


“You are simply embarrassed that you require my services at all.”


It was true.  Thranduil could be justifiably proud of wounds earned in valor, but his current difficulties had been caused in large part by his own horse during a particularly rough encounter with a clutch of the giant spiders.  The beast had completely lost its nerve and subsequently flung them both into a jumble of rocks and tree trunks.  Now Thranduil was suffering the annoyance of a wrenched muscle in the back of his neck, among many other minor hurts.  The shooting pain was surprising, as was the realization of just how often he required that particular muscle to function properly.


Noruvion probed the extent of the damage with practiced fingers.  “You will live,” he pronounced, though no one had suspected otherwise.  “No irrevocable harm done.”  He began to firmly knead the stiffness from the injury, demonstrating the proper technique for Gwaelas.  He also gave him a small bottle of oil infused with the essences of many wholesome things for additional relief. 


“Do not overtax yourself,” Noruvion admonished him as he prepared to take his leave.  “If you injure yourself further by neglect, I shall know it.”


Thranduil scowled at him.  “Have I ever disregarded your advice?” he asked.


“Only in that respect,” Noruvion insisted.  “Rest, and you will mend all the faster.”


Thranduil only sighed as Noruvion left them.  He was correct, of course.  Pushing doggedly through the discomfort of the many injuries he had endured during his lifetime had never once helped them to heal better or more quickly.  Moreover, he was tired, which had no doubt contributed to his inability to control his horse in the first place.  His sleep had been fitful lately, fraught with ominous shadows.


He said nothing for a moment, still seated straddling the wooden chair backwards with his shirt open, his thoughts adrift.  Gwaelas, choosing to make something of the opportunity, quietly put several drops of the oil on his hand and resumed the restorative attentions as Noruvion had instructed.


It was painful but not entirely unpleasant, and Thranduil had to resist being lulled insensible by the repetitive motion.  “I have no time to nurse petty injuries like this, Gwaelas,” he said stubbornly, though he made no move to stand.


“Then you must make time somehow, my lord,” Gwaelas insisted, uncharacteristically impertinent.   “You must abide by Master Noruvion’s instructions and recover your strength properly.  You are not inexhaustible.”


“You and Noruvion seem to be the only ones who realize it,” Thranduil allowed himself to admit.  His carefully cultivated image as the tireless guardian of the wood seemed to be accepted by most, and only a few knew the true extent of his daily struggles.


“Your secret is safe with me, my lord,” Gwaelas assured him.  At last, he stopped kneading in order to stretch his fingers.  “Will you not take some sleep?” he asked, gesturing to the bed.  “Surely the broad light of day harbors fewer perils than the night.”


Despite all his protests, Thranduil found the prospect very appealing.  He would have nodded, but it still hurt to do so.  Recognizing his victory, Gwaelas turned down the bedding and placed the goose down cushions in such a way as to best accommodate the King’s injury.  Thranduil kicked off his boots, untied his hair, and gingerly lay down on his bed, intending for once to take Noruvion’s advice entirely to heart.


“I shall inform Lord Linhir that you are not to be disturbed,” Gwaelas assured him, obviously anxious to get away as quickly as possible to stem the constant tide of royal affairs and leave Thranduil to his rest.  “Have you any last instruction for him?”


A loud rapping at the door made Thranduil bolt upright without thinking.  He and Gwaelas cursed at once, he from the pain, the other from frustration.


“Come!” Thranduil barked, rubbing his neck, although now the untimely messenger seemed reluctant to enter.  “Come in, come in.  You can do no worse.”


Captain Lancaeron of the King’s Guard entered, looking perhaps a bit more sheepish than a captain of the King’s Guard ever should.  “I beg your pardon, sire,” he began, “but we have had such news from the western marches.  Commander Dorthaer thought it best to inform you at once.”


“Very well, say on,” Thranduil said, intrigued.  Lancaeron’s agitated aspect did not imply that it was bad news, but perhaps news of a strange and wondrous sort.  They needed more of that those days.


“Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel have entered the wood and are encamped with our guard on the western road.  They have declared their intention to continue here by the swiftest road at first light, by your leave, and take counsel with you.”


Thranduil was genuinely surprised, and said nothing for a moment.  Celeborn had not sent word ahead, indeed had been little heard of for many long years, and Galadriel certainly did not make a habit of consulting him.  His interest was keenly piqued. 


“Send an escort for them, Captain,” he said at last, “and show them every courtesy.  Celeborn and his Lady are ever welcome in any realm of mine.”  For one fleeting moment, Thranduil was reminded of that scowl which had always darkened his father’s countenance at the mention of their sundered cousin in later days.  Then it was gone.  The jealousies of Oropher’s reign were little more than a faded memory now.


Lancaeron left at once to do as he was bidden.  Thranduil moved to stand, but Gwaelas rounded on him and placed a hand firmly on his shoulder.


“The Lord and Lady cannot arrive any sooner than tomorrow evening,” he said in a tone which brooked no argument.  “There is nothing to be done and no preparation to be made that cannot be entrusted to others.  Your first duty, sire, is to take your rest.”


Thranduil tried to frown at him, but the expression twisted itself into a strange smile.  “You have grown very bold, Gwaelas,” he said, gently cuffing his hand aside.  “It will land you in trouble someday.  I forgive you now, and I shall take your advice, but if the good silverware is not polished or our guests are bedded too near the sluices, I shall know who to blame.”


“Nothing of the kind will happen, I assure you, my lord,” Gwaelas said, extinguishing many of the lamps and leaving the King’s chamber in a soft golden twilight.  “Now sleep, for the love of Elbereth.”


 



They arrived late on the following evening, crossing the bridge over the river in the dappled orange light of sunset.  It was a small party of six mounted on handsome brown horses, hooded and cloaked in soft woodland colors.  They were dressed for anonymity, which was usually not the case with the Lord and the Lady.


Thranduil stood at the gates to welcome them, flanked by his honor guard.  He wore on his brow only the simple military circlet of twisted steel.  He had not yet brought himself to replace their treasured crowns, and that one seemed to better represent the sort of society they had become. 


“Welcome to the last bastion of Eryn Galen, my lords,” he said as they dismounted.  “I am immensely gratified to receive you at last, though I am quite at a loss to account for your coming so suddenly.”


“It has been a long and weary journey for us in these past months,” Celeborn explained, stiffly according Thranduil the honors due a king in his own halls.  “Forgive our coming upon you unannounced, but we seem to be driven more by instinct than by any prepared route.”


“The fault is mine, I am afraid,” Galadriel said, throwing back her hood to reveal her striking golden hair, “though my lord would never admit it.  There is much evil afoot in the world, and we have been on a long journey of inquiry throughout Rhovanion to learn all we can.”


“I trust your efforts have not been in vain,” Thranduil said.  “I shall be glad to assist you in any way you may require, and it has been too long since we have had any news from the south.  But unless you have learned of some immediate danger, I must insist that you take some refreshment with us before we begin.  Speaking of evil things can be hungry work.”


They had no objection, for plainly life in the wilds of Rhovanion had long ago lost its charm.  On a rare impulse of hospitable generosity, Thranduil showed them to the royal baths deep in the caverns, recently finished and complete with amenities fit for any lord.  Deep pools were fed by branches of the river strained clean by a series of fine screens.  Heated water flowed in from a reservoir hidden behind the walls.  The floors were tiled with black granite from the mountains, glimmering with iridescent inclusions like stars in a clear night sky.  It was Thranduil’s new favorite retreat, but he sensed his road-weary guests had more need of it than he did at that moment.  Celeborn seemed duly impressed, but Galadriel, who perhaps had expected a frostier welcome and more rustic accommodations, named him a true friend and blessed.


After they had bathed and recovered themselves, Thranduil received them at his private table for supper.  The enormous venison roast with chestnuts and mushrooms left nothing to be desired, complemented as a matter of course with generous portions of wine.


“Where is Legolas?” Celeborn finally asked. 


“Legolas has gone to lead a patrol of soldiers south to the mountains,” Thranduil explained.  “Had I known of your coming, I would have held him back.  Of all the fine things my realm can boast, I dare to say he is the finest.  We can only hope he returns before you must depart.”


“Indeed,” Galadriel agreed.  “It would be a shame to leave without meeting him.”


“Tell me how it goes with Amroth,” Thranduil said.  “A great deal has changed since last I saw him.”


“I imagine you do not see much of anyone we used to know here in your isolated corner of the world,” Celeborn observed.  “For that I cannot fault you.  We have only just left our own distant home in Belfalas by the sea where we have been for much of this age.”


Thranduil now noticed Galadriel’s nacre brooch and her pearl jewelry.  It stirred a strange melancholy in his heart with memories of Lindon and Mithlond and a simpler time.  He drowned it in wine before it could trouble him further.


“We passed through Lórinand first on our journey,” Galadriel was saying.  “While all goes well with Amroth himself, I regret that he had dire news of Eriador.”


“Things go very ill in Arnor,” Celeborn said, cutting to the chase.  “It may not even be accurate to call it Arnor any longer.”


“I was aware that the northern kingdom had been split into three parts,” Thranduil said, pouring himself another glass.  “That was the last reliable report I had until we last met in Imladris.  I did not pay an extraordinary amount of attention to what moved in those kingdoms of Men at the time, but I did not hear anything of concern.”


“There was peace then,” Celeborn explained, “but the intervening centuries have been evil.  The Nazgûl have risen again, and the chief among them rules a realm of sorcery in the far north which has been named Angmar.  He and his minions have overrun Cardolan and seduced Rhudaur into becoming a vassal state.  King Araphor of Arthedain still resists, but his people are diminished and he is hard pressed.  His father, Arveleg, was killed by assassins from Rhudaur, and it was only with the timely assistance of Círdan of Lindon that he held his throne.  Just this past year they endured another assault, and Elrond was obliged to cross the mountains and beg reinforcements from Amroth.  They had the victory, and Angmar has been repulsed for the time, but no one imagines the Witchking to be conquered forever.”


“This is dire news indeed,” Thranduil agreed slowly, his mind racing.  He had no soldiers to waste in Eriador, certainly not against a rogue kingdom ruled by Ringwraiths.  He prayed they would not ask him, because he would be forced to refuse.  Nonetheless, he could feel a request coming.  “What is it you desire of me?”


“We do not ask you to leave Rhovanion,” Celeborn assured him.  “Your circumstances here are too pressing for that.  But, should all Eriador fall to the ravages of Angmar and Imladris be overrun, it would be a comfort for Elrond to know our forces may retreat to your wood at need.”


“That much I can promise,” Thranduil said, relieved.  “My borders are ever open to anyone of good faith from Imladris, Lindon, or Lórinand.  I regret that it was not always so, but those days are past.”


Celeborn smiled at him then, an expression more spontaneous and genuine than any Thranduil could now remember.  Perhaps his elder cousin was slightly undone by the wine, but Thranduil could still recall a brief conversation in a crowded hall on the other side of the mountains many centuries ago when Celeborn had dared to admit that he would have preferred to see Thranduil on Oropher’s throne.  The idea had seemed incredible at the time.  This was not the way either of them would have chosen to effect the reconciliation of their houses, but the accomplished fact remained. 


“Enough talk of doom,” Galadriel said then, banishing the dark tidings about which they could do nothing.  “We cannot afford to despair of Eriador yet, and Imladris will never be conquered without being very dearly bought.  Tell us about your defenses in Mirkwood, Thranduil.  We have come to learn all we can on that score.”


“Tales of life in Mirkwood will keep until the morning,” Thranduil insisted.  “You have both earned at least a fortnight of unguarded sleep after such a journey.”  He rose from his seat, but could not hide the painful twinge in his neck as he straightened.


Celeborn frowned.  “Are you hurt?” he demanded tersely.


“It is little more than an annoyance,” Thranduil insisted, minding his language in the Lady’s company.  “It will mend in time.”


“Please, Thranduil, allow me to attend it,” Galadriel said earnestly.  “Let this be a small token of our gratitude.”


Not certain what she meant, Thranduil said nothing.  Galadriel plainly interpreted his silence as consent, for she placed a hand on his shoulder to bid him sit, and Thranduil found himself obeying without question.  It was when she unbuckled the front of his jerkin and began unlacing his shirt that he became decidedly uncomfortable and glanced sharply at Celeborn.  The silver lord observed the scene with a tolerant air, as if he had seen the like a hundred times before.


Trying not to stiffen entirely, Thranduil sat quietly as Galadriel reached into his shirt and slowly ran her smooth hand over his chest, back across his shoulder, and then along his neck.  He could feel a power in her touch that he had never experienced before, at once gentle and perilous, thrumming through his core.  It was intoxicating, and in that moment he could not help but imagine that he understood Celeborn better than Oropher ever had.


A pleasant wave of heat seemed to emanate from her hand as it lingered over his injury.  Thranduil almost pulled away, startled, but allowed her to continue.  The heat grew stronger, spreading irresistibly through his body, and it seemed he could feel all damage righting itself. 


Galadriel at last withdrew her hand as the residual warmth faded, leaving him rather stunned.  “I trust you will find your hurts much improved,” she smiled.


Thranduil turned his head experimentally and found all trace of the pain had gone.  “Thank you, my lady,” he managed to say, still a bit unsettled.


A household servant with an armful of plates passed by the door, paused and took a few steps backward to give the King a quizzical look before carrying on as before.


Thranduil frowned and pulled himself together, quickly closing his jerkin before he became the talk of the kitchens.  He was almost certain he had caught a fleeting glimpse of silver and adamant on Galadriel’s finger, but tacitly agreed not to speak of it. 


“As I said,” he continued, standing once more, “there is time enough to show you whatever you wish in the morning.  Take whatever leisure you require for we need not start at first light.  I am in no great hurry to be rid of you.”


“You are proving a very gracious host,” Celeborn commended him.  “I would that I could show you the same courtesy.”


“Someday,” Thranduil agreed as his guests departed for their chambers in the company of their escorts.  “Someday when the shadows of Mirkwood are lifted and Dol Guldur is no more, I promise I shall visit your home wherever it may be.”




Chapter 24 ~ Holding the North II




Thranduil dreamed vividly of Lindóriel that night.  They said no word to one another, but she seemed as real and as alive as he had ever known her, lying with him in a wide green meadow showered with wind-borne tree blossoms.  It was familiar and yet foreign, like a memory of a place he had not yet seen.  He had tasted tears on her face, only to wake and find they were his own.


Alone in the dark but for the dogs, Thranduil allowed himself to grieve again as he had not for far too long.  Galadriel had unwittingly stirred a torrent of old emotions and passions he had until now kept firmly suppressed.  It had been four hundred years since a woman had touched him that way, and it seemed she had lanced a far older wound than she had intended. 


It was profoundly bittersweet but Thranduil clung to those shreds of dream, treasured them until they were indelibly impressed upon his memory.  It was almost like seeing her again.  Galadriel had given him a greater grace than she knew.


The dogs seemed to recognize their master’s distress.  They gathered protectively around Thranduil on the bed as he finally let the desolation pour out of him uninhibited.  The trauma of being reft from his most intimate companion had wounded him so deeply that the pain was still unbearable when he allowed himself to feel it.  He did not suppress it now.  He felt it, he embraced it, he deliberately exacerbated it until the depths of his soul were inflamed with the exquisite agony of loss.


It was late in the morning when Gwaelas at last came looking for him, the light from the corridor spilling into the deep gloom of his chambers.  Gwaelas was one of the very few who were ever permitted to see the King in such a state, stripped of all pretense and wracked with raw emotion, disheveled and miserable and streaked with tears.  He said nothing, but looked keenly sympathetic as he lit a few of the lamps and then returned whence he had come.  He was back again in a moment, securing the door behind him as he set about the mundane routine of preparing his lord’s clothing for the day.


“I have ordered your breakfast be brought here, my lord,” Gwaelas said gently.  “Lord Celeborn and his lady have been attended, and have likewise spent the morning in bed.”


“Very well,” Thranduil said, striving to steady his voice. 


“Shall I tell them you are indisposed?”


“No.”  Thranduil wiped his eyes and resumed a stern expression.  “I will not spend the day hiding in here.  Allow me an hour, and then return.”


“As you wish.”  Gwaelas moved to wave the enormous wolves off the bed before he went.  One dared to growl at him, but he silenced her with a severe glance.  The entire pack followed him into the corridor to receive their morning rations and escape into the free air outside.


As Thranduil set about making himself presentable, he realized an hour was still a very sanguine estimate.  The mirror told him his face again had that haunted look which inspired no one.  He stubbornly refused to be seen in an official capacity before he had completely collected himself, and now he must recreate in one hour that stable presence of mind he had cultivated over centuries.  He splashed cold water on his face, attempting to quell the roiling tumult in his heart. 


The best immediate remedy he knew for grief was action, especially violent action if he could afford to indulge in it.  He glanced at the wardrobe door and saw that Gwaelas had anticipated his needs with his usual prescience, selecting the stout woodland garb trimmed with many subtle royal embellishments.  A hunt would clear his mind and be a suitable entertainment for Celeborn.  Later he would be able to remember her smile without feeling utterly wretched, but for now he had to think of other things.  He ate his food when it arrived without much thought, his mind already elsewhere.  He tied his hair back and opted again for the steel circlet.


 Gwaelas returned to inquire after him as instructed when the hour was up.  He seemed pleased by the improvement in Thranduil’s manner.  “Your guests await you, my lord,” he said.  “Do you require anything else this morning?”


“No, thank you, Gwaelas,” Thranduil assured him.  “Only inform Dorthaer and the rest of my guard that we shall be riding into the south today with Lord Celeborn, and we may not return before tomorrow.  Have horses prepared for us at once.”


Gwaelas nodded knowingly.  “At your command, my lord.”


Thranduil found Celeborn and Galadriel ensconced in one of the large niche chambers overlooking the King’s throne, lingering over their breakfast in considerable comfort.


“There you are!” Celeborn exclaimed as he joined them.  “I had begun to fear we had kept you waiting, but I am told you had a late morning as well.”


“Indeed,” Thranduil said.  “I had a great deal to consider last night, and enjoyed some exceptionally good sleep which I believe I must attribute to the kind attentions of your lady wife.”


“You are most welcome,” Galadriel smiled.  It was impossible to tell whether she knew or guessed how he had truly passed the night, but Thranduil had no intention of discussing it.


“Today I am at your disposal,” he said instead.  “I understand you wish to see our defenses and learn what you may of the power in Dol Guldur.”


“That is our object,” Galadriel confirmed.  “It now seems that your survival here concerns us all more closely than we thought.  We intend to bear tidings of you to Elrond when we leave for Imladris.”


“Very well,” Thranduil said.  “It seems to me that you might observe more by each taking a different perspective.  By your leave, I would ride south with your husband while Lord Linhir shows you our nearer defenses.”


Galadriel looked at him narrowly.  “I see in your cunning plan merely a pretext to spend time alone with your kinsman,” she said, “but I will not challenge you, for your reasoning is sound.  I shall tour your defenses if you wish, while you two indulge in your own entertainments.”


“You are very gracious, my lady,” Thranduil said, smiling in his turn.


Celeborn affectionately took his leave of her, but she waved him away, perfectly content to sip her wine and wait for Lord Linhir to appear.


Thranduil led Celeborn to the armory where he retrieved his bow and saw his cousin fitted with one of his own.  Fortunately, Celeborn was already dressed appropriately for the outing.  As his objectives today would require more stealth than force, they forwent their swords and armed themselves with long knives instead.


Dorthaer and eleven others of the King’s Guard awaited them in the stables with a pack of Thranduil’s dogs, the horses fitted with light saddles and supplies enough for two days in the wood.  All of them were armed as if for war.


“What sort of hunt is this?” Celeborn asked incredulously as he mounted his horse.  “What is our quarry?”


“The most interesting quarry of all,” Thranduil promised, turning his stallion toward the southern road.  “Men.”


 



They passed nearly silently through the trees, marked only by the hoofbeats of the horses and the rustle of the dogs through the undergrowth.  Occasionally Thranduil would pull Celeborn aside to briefly explain where they were and what dangers he need be mindful of.  The wood was clear and green for several leagues, though the shadow of Mirkwood had begun encroaching northward again, providing shelter for many evil things.  Webs had begun to appear in the trees overhead, and not everyone who had lately made his home in that region sought leave of the King.


They soon left the road and plunged into the wilds, guided by little more than Thranduil’s instinct.  The subtle speech of the birds told him a great deal, for there were many friends of Radagast on the wing.  They spoke of caution, of danger and of intruders. 


 The dogs acquired a fresh trail in the fading light of evening, and Thranduil raised a hand for absolute silence.  They left their horses with a guard of four while the rest of the party slipped through the shadows on foot. 


They began to hear voices ahead of them as the shadows lengthened, and they could all smell a change in the air.  Firelight flickered in the dark.  They had found their quarry at last, another group of outlaws and rogues who thought to take advantage of Mirkwood’s evil reputation, sheltering there and preying upon the Men of the valley and any hapless travelers they caught on the road.  There were always more of them.  They never seemed to question the disappearance of their predecessors. 


This was not the first time Dorthaer and his Guardsmen had stalked a camp, and everyone fell quickly into position, crouched like shadows beside the wide boles of trees or amid the brush.  Thranduil kept one eye on Celeborn, but he need not have worried.  The Lord of Belfalas may have had little need of his woodcraft of late, but he had not forgotten it.


This camp seemed to be slowly acquiring qualities of permanence.  Simple hovels had been built of split timber to shelter both the thieves and their new wealth against the coming winter.  A generous blaze burned in the center of the clearing, casting its fluid light over a small crowd of weathered individuals, stacks of cordwood, a crude smith’s forge, and scattered piles of refuse.  The skull of a magnificent stag had been hammered to a post outside the largest dwelling, accompanied by those of several birds.  The entire place reeked of woodsmoke and ripe sweat.


The Elves remained fixed in place for a while, surrounding the clearing in a loose perimeter while they counted and observed the occupants.  One of the brigands, made careless by drink and driven by necessity, passed within an arm’s length of both Thranduil and Celeborn on his way into the dark to relieve himself.  Still they did not move.  The time was not right.


Dorthaer returned to report to Thranduil, gliding through the cover like a cat.  By a rapid series of hand signals, he communicated that there were twenty-four individuals present, two of them women.  Five were sleeping, all were armed.  Thranduil nodded and gave him leave to proceed.


Now when the waking Men wandered beyond the firelight, they failed to return.  No sound was heard, save perhaps a few grunts and the whisper of a brief scuffle, but these were lost in the bawdy noise of the camp.  Two of the Men, incongruously decked in fine jewelry, were engaged in a drunken argument which seemed likely to come to blows.  Another was very publicly having his wicked way with one of their women while six more cheered his conquest.  The others wandered through the camp on business of their own, drinking wine, tending the fires, and picking through the roast carcass of a young bear. 


“Where is that fool, Rathar?” one of them demanded loudly.  “Is he so drunk that he has lost himself in the dark?  We have a game to finish.”


“Go after him,” another said, apparently with some authority.  “He cannot escape his debts so easily.”


Grumbling, the aggrieved dice player tramped into the wood in the general direction his friend had taken earlier.  Thranduil tapped Celeborn on the shoulder, bidding him wait and be ready.


Thranduil watched motionless until the man had just passed him.  Then he hooked his arm around the other’s throat and rolled him quietly to the ground, kneeling upon his legs and muffling his cries with a gloved hand until he collapsed in a faint.  With a ready length of rope, Thranduil quickly bound the wrists and ankles together and left him for the moment to return to his cover.  They would fetch him later.


It was high time they made their presence known.  Enough of the Men had been secured for the Elves to risk an assault.  It would have been much simpler to slaughter them all, but Thranduil was feeling generous.  He laid his hand on the bark of a near tree and felt it pulse with recognition.  The spirit of the forest awaited his command.


“Now Sigeric has gone and lost himself, too!” someone observed.  “And has anyone seen Rachad or Garivald?”


“What the blazes is going on?” the obvious chief among them finally asked.


With one great effort, Thranduil choked the life from the fire in their midst, plunging the scene into darkness.  At that signal, his Elves surged forward to capture the blinded and disoriented outlaws.  The men cursed and the women screamed, but all met the same fate.  It was finished in a matter of moments, though the screaming and shouting continued. 


When all their prisoners had been secured, the Elves rekindled the fire, more for cheer and comfort than for any need of light.  It illuminated an amusing scene, fifteen captives tied hand and foot, some still partially entangled in the wide nets which had been cast over them in the dark.  The remaining nine were gathered from the wood and cast down beside their fellows.


“A fine haul, Commander,” Thranduil congratulated Dorthaer as he surveyed the camp.  “They are not so fat as our last catch, but still they seem to have profited quite enough from their mischief.”


“You have got a lot of bloody cheek!” shouted the irate chieftain from where he lay.  He would not condescend to speak the Elvish tongue, though he clearly understood it.  “By what right do you trespass upon our homes and make sport of us?”


“Get him up,” Thranduil said imperiously, impressed by the man’s impudent courage.  “I do not speak to creatures wallowing in the dirt.”


Lancaeron grabbed the man by the collar and dragged him into a sitting position.  “Govern your tongue in the presence of the King,” he growled.


“I am also a king!” he protested.  “Though you seem determined to deny me the distinction.”


“Very well, little king,” Thranduil answered, speaking in the dialect of Men for his benefit.  “Have you a name?”


The Man glowered.  “I am Gunderic,” he said.  “These are my people, and this is my realm.  Not much to you, I suppose, but you have no right to violate us!”


“I have every right,” Thranduil said.  “If you found this stretch of wood pleasant to live in, it is because I have made it so.  You have trespassed in my realm without leave and harried travelers on the road my people made.  You have robbed and abused the Woodmen who have paid well for my protection.  I shall remove you from your den as I am obliged to do, but it is they who will decide your fate.  Bear that in mind.”


That prospect did seem to fill most of the company with some measure of trepidation.  Each of them was thoroughly stripped of all looted treasure, rings, chains, brooches, and coins.  Those who did not give trouble were re-bound in a more comfortable position and offered wine.  Those who spat, cursed, or flailed about were left face down in the dirt.  Considering the disparity of treatment, it did not take long for the stubborn ones to come around to the new discipline. 


With their captives secured, Dorthaer and his party began tearing the camp apart searching for caches of food, treasure and weapons.  Pest-ridden bedding was burned immediately, and the refuse dumps were covered with fresh earth.  In only a few hours, the place seemed vastly improved.  This was partly because the sleeping draught secreted in the wine had taken effect and all their querulous captives were slumbering soundly, allowing the Elves some measure of privacy.


“Look what they found,” Thranduil said, joining Celeborn at the fire with several bottles of wine under his arm.  “It is of respectable quality, good enough to be mine.  In fact, it may very well be mine if the label is correct.  Our shipments have been short of late.”


Celeborn smiled as Thranduil sat beside him on the fallen tree.  “You must thank Gunderic for hoarding your favorite vintage for the occasion,” he said.


Thranduil laughed wryly.  “At the very least I must apologize to the wine merchant.  He always insisted bandits must have been responsible, but that tale always seemed too convenient.”


There were no cups to be found in that place fit for use, so they each broke a seal and drank straight from the bottle.  It was all extremely rustic. 


“I will speak freely, Thranduil,” Celeborn said at last.  “When Galadriel insisted upon making this rambling journey, I agreed partly out of a desire to see you again.  We have had no news in Belfalas, and I have been concerned.  You left the council very suddenly.”


“I was not in the best of spirits at the time,” Thranduil explained.  “You understand.”


“Oh, indeed,” Celeborn agreed, “but that alone can make you vulnerable, as I am certain you know.  I see now that you have rallied admirably, but I believe a great deal more depends upon your rather precarious position here than has been credited to you.  I wish there was more I could do on your behalf.”


Thranduil let the wine sit on his tongue a long time before answering.  “So do I,” he finally agreed, “but that does not seem to be the way the winds are blowing.  This is my task, and short of open war there is not much assistance to be had.  Radagast keeps a watch, and Mithrandir appears now and again.  If ever there is an opportunity for you to join us in battle against Dol Guldur, I am certain you will come.”


“I only hope there is a chance yet for open war and that you are not slowly smothered to death,” Celeborn said.  “The shadow that lies over Mirkwood seems very heavy indeed.”


“We have had some dark times, but we are secure enough,” Thranduil assured him.  “Still, I often suspect the Necromancer does little more than trifle with us.  Whoever he is, he seems to recognize that I am unable to unseat him, but also that we shall not be shifted by anything less than a devastating assault.  We have come to a strange sort of stalemate, though I do not doubt he still wishes us gone.  His attacks have more subtlety now, ever trying our borders and poisoning the wood with his sorcery.”


“Galadriel has become very sensitive to such things,” Celeborn said.  “It has made her restless.  She felt the contention between you and Dol Guldur as we approached, but she says the shadow seems to have withdrawn now, almost as if to hide from her.  I hesitate to ask how it is that you oppose the Necromancer’s advances so successfully, for surely such an effort has its price.”


Thranduil was silent on that subject, and then sighed heavily.  He had finished his first bottle by now, and he could already feel it eroding that veneer of pride which had restrained his answers.  “The price is more onerous than you know,” he admitted at last, ready to unburden himself.  “He is always there, nameless and faceless, looming in the dark.  There are times when I can feel his eye upon me, day and night, watching and waiting and probing at the fringes of my mind until I can have no rest.  I feel as though I am being bled to death.  I oppose him as my strength allows, and thus far I have been able to cast him back, but it can be a heavy task.  I believe he is holding his final assault for that day when he at last finds me too weak to endure his scrutiny any more.”


“Dare we hope that day remains a distant prospect?” Celeborn asked, concerned.


“Extremely distant,” Thranduil said defiantly, twisting the seal off another bottle, “so long as the wood still answers to me.  Its strength has sustained me through the most difficult confrontations.” 


“Does he trouble others as he does you?”


“Not that I have been told, which is all to the good.  If I must bear the brunt of his malice in order that my people may be left unmolested, I would not have it otherwise.”  Thranduil trailed away for a moment, staring into the flames.  “What does it matter?” he asked bitterly.  “He destroyed my happiness long ago.”


Here it came again, that rising tide of bitterness and resentment which grief always left in its wake.  Even now, Thranduil knew he could attribute his impulsive words to drink, but after holding his peace for so long he felt compelled to speak to someone.  He did not like to burden Legolas, and he was not ready to confess his weakness to his brothers. 


“We were grieved that our first news of you for so long was so dreadful,” Celeborn said gently.  He had offered his condolences centuries ago in Imladris but did not seem surprised that Thranduil was still uneasy with his loss.


“She died in my arms,” Thranduil told him, just inebriated enough to be numb to the memory, “slipped away despite all my efforts to hold her.  I would have spent even my last breath to spare her life, but she would not allow it.”


“Then it was very nobly done,” Celeborn observed.  “She must have been a fine queen to make so courageous an end.”


“I must confess I felt neither so noble nor so courageous that night,” Thranduil said.  “In the moment, I wanted nothing more than to die with her, without thought for anything or anyone else.  Now I see the madness of it, but sometimes I wonder what I might have done had she not forbidden me to follow her.”


Celeborn said nothing, but merely tossed a twig into the fire. 


“We were happy here,” Thranduil continued absently, thinking aloud.  “We had everything we could desire, and it seemed we spent a lifetime together in more peace and joy than we had thought possible.”  He paused and heaved a shuddering breath, determined not to be undone by pleasant memories.  “And then he came.  He came and tore us apart, intent upon ruining all that was good and beautiful in our world.  I hate him for that.  I want his name.  I want him unmasked, and I want him destroyed.  Until then, I shall not give him the satisfaction of seeing me succumb to my wounds.”


Unexpectedly, Thranduil felt Celeborn’s hand on his shoulder, an unguarded expression of kindred affection he had not known since his youth.  It was at once a surprise and a comfort.


“For your sake, I wish whatever ill upon Dol Guldur as may be within my power,” Celeborn said.  “But all is not yet lost.  You still have Legolas with you.”


“I do,” Thranduil agreed, “and he is truly the last great happiness of my life.  I am resolved that the Necromancer will not touch him, or else I shall storm his keep myself, like Fingolfin at the gates of Angband.”


Celeborn allowed himself a mirthless laugh.  “I believe you would,” he said.  “For all our sakes, I hope you never have cause.  I would much prefer that you enjoy a quiet victory rather than a glorious defeat.  If you continue on as you are, however,” he added, nodding at Thranduil’s half spent bottle, “you may go storming south this very night.”


Thranduil smiled tolerantly at the gentle rebuke.  “Each of us is allowed his own vices,” he said.


“It is quite good,” Celeborn admitted, meaning the wine.


“Enjoy it, then, while you may,” Thranduil bid him.  “I paid for it.”


It might have been prudent to rest while they had the opportunity, but Thranduil had no wish to waste their time together in sleep, and it seemed neither did Celeborn.  They lingered by the fire long into the night, their proud tongues loosed by wine, confiding to one another many things they might never have mentioned while in complete command of their wits.  Beneath all past quarrels and the quiet distance which had grown between them over the long years, a deep strain of kindred feeling still bound them together.  They had been close once, and neither had ever truly forgotten it.


“I have troubled you enough with my woes,” Thranduil said at last, stoking the fire back to life.  “I may be mistaken, but I sense that you might have troubles of your own.”


Now Celeborn sighed.  He had stopped drinking hours ago, but it was clear he was not accustomed to the excesses Thranduil had come to tolerate.  “After your tales, I fear any troubles of mine will seem petty,” he said at last.  “Understand that I would never have confessed this to your father.”


Thranduil’s interest was piqued then despite his slightly clouded mind.  “Yes?”


“I fear the ancient Curse of Mandos has returned to trouble Galadriel again, catching at our heels like a shadow.  She is troubled by responsibilities she cannot share with me, and she is deeply unsettled at heart.  I would stay with our son in Lórinand, but the sealonging is strong in her heart and she wishes to remain in Belfalas.  At times I feel I am not enough to satisfy her.”


Thranduil took his time framing an answer.  It was a delicate matter that had indeed been discussed within the circles of their family.  He was gratified that Celeborn trusted him enough to admit his personal griefs, and he did not wish to discourage him. 


“I have no desire to dredge up an old quarrel,” he began cautiously, “but it is still true that Galadriel is of a different kindred and another world.  Perhaps she is searching for some justification for her continued presence in Middle-earth.  She would not have taken this exile and its consequences upon herself had she not greatly desired whatever she expected to find here.  Perhaps she has yet to obtain it.”


Rather than stiffen immediately, as Celeborn had previously been wont to do, he merely looked worn and a bit saddened.  “Perhaps you are right,” he conceded.  “There is more, I know, but you may not be wholly wrong.  Oropher may not have been wholly wrong.”  That admission was obviously wrung from him with considerable effort.  “But cursed or no, I still love her, and I would sooner share her fate than be crowned with all the glories of this world.”


Thranduil smiled softly.  “Then continue loving her,” he said simply.  “Cherish every moment with her and let come what may.  That is what will be remembered at the end of all things, when all lords and kings are forgotten.”


 



The first blush of dawn was glowing in the east when the bustle of activity began again in the camp.  The Elves were in no particular hurry, lingering over their breakfast and enjoying the last few hours of peace before their captives began to stir.  Their horses were fed and watered and readied for the ride ahead.  The salvageable goods of the camp were packed, and—more ominously—the forge’s fire was stoked.


“Is this everything?” Thranduil inquired as Dorthaer and Lancaeron lay two large chests of treasure on the rough-hewn table they had dragged outside for the purpose.


“Yes, sire,” Dorthaer confirmed.  “Every hoard has been emptied.”


“Very well,” Thranduil said, pleased.  “Each of you may claim his prize.”


One by one, each of the Elvish soldiers chose whatever coin or trinket he fancied, a special reward allowed by the King for their outstanding service.  Several wives would soon be well compensated for their patience.  The remainder was carefully stowed in saddle pouches across the company until it could be conveyed to the royal treasury.


“Is this primarily how you have recovered your considerable resources?” Celeborn asked slyly, his expression caught between amusement and disapproval.


“We do have other avenues of income,” Thranduil protested in good humor, “but it is true that these bands of thieves have proven very lucrative prey.  We cannot hope to make accurate restitution, but the Woodmen know they have only to call upon me in their need.”


The cursing and groaning had begun again in earnest now that the prisoners were returning to their senses.  Dorthaer’s soldiers roughly prodded the most sluggish of them awake so that they might all attend the words of the King.


“Good day to you all,” Thranduil began, addressing them clearly in their own tongue, but with a grim sort of false cheer.  “I trust you passed a restful night.  As of this day, each of you is banned from all reaches of my realm, and you will be marked accordingly.  You will be escorted to the western borderlands and delivered into the charge of the Free Men who dwell there.  In the meantime, we have no desire to attend your every need, so you will be free to walk unbound.  Understand that any who attempt to flee will earn a swift and certain death.  My mercy has its limits.”


Several of them, particularly Gunderic, began to loudly voice their objections, but Thranduil had already turned and was not listening.  The other Elves ignored them as well and began loosing their bonds.  The protests quieted as the Men flexed their extremities and began looking to one another.  For the moment, none dared take advantage of his new mobility.  They were given a meager breakfast and allowed to wander a short distance into the wood to attend their needs.  For one the temptation then proved too great and he bolted for freedom.  A silent arrow struck him down amid the bilberry scrub.  He had been warned.


Every surviving captive was dragged in turn to the forge where an iron had been prepared, retrieved from its place on Dorthaer’s saddle.  Each was branded deeply on the shoulder with the bent rune that was the initial of Thranduil’s name, the outward sign of his irrevocable judgment against them.  The clearing was quickly dominated by the howls of the condemned and the smell of burnt flesh.  It was a necessary measure, and each wound was duly salved and bound.


When all the outlaws had been attended, Dorthaer used the same brand to prominently mark the wall of the largest structure in the camp.  It would serve as a deterrent to any others who wished to use the site for unsavory purposes.  The Elves mounted their horses and turned the entire party west, loosely surrounding the Men as they walked and stumbled through the undergrowth.  Thranduil and Celeborn followed close behind. 


“Are you often required to clear enclaves such at this?” Celeborn asked.


“More often than previously,” Thranduil admitted.  “These Men live briefly and learn slowly, but even so they are little more than a distraction from our primary concerns.”


“I would have you tell me more about how you manage those concerns,” Celeborn pressed.  “Your strategies are of great interest to me, and perhaps will set my mind at ease.”


“Patience,” Thranduil said, unable to help cracking a smile.  “I imagine your lady wife has already inspected many of our defenses.  In a few days we shall return to her.”




Chapter 25 ~ Holding the North III




There was an oppressive mist throughout the wood, thick and dank, hanging in the trees like a pall.  There was no sound, no sign of bird or beast, barely any discernible flutter of life. Thranduil found the stillness strangely disquieting.  He felt alone and exposed in that vast waste, conspicuous, vulnerable. He saw the leaves glistening wet, the dew gathered on the underwood, but he smelled only ash and the stench of wildfire.  The sky was gray, and somewhere the forest was burning.  Without seeing it, he perceived that he was clad again in the ruined mail and scored leather armor he had worn on that dreadful day he had first been named king.


He knew at once that he was dreaming, but he could not wake himself.  The patterns on the trees told him he was facing north, and the certainty of what must be waiting behind him clutched at his heart.  He wanted desperately to wake, to escape this confrontation.  He was not alone at all.  He felt stripped and helpless before that dreadful presence, reduced to nothing but his stubborn pride.  He felt the weight of its malevolent gaze on his back.  There was no escape.


Reluctantly, Thranduil gathered all his resolve, set his jaw, and slowly turned around.


His enemy was wreathed in smoke, looming tall and dark in robes of black and gold and bronze, exactly as Thranduil had known him in Eregion.  It had been said that he could no longer assume so fair a semblance after it had been drowned in the ruin of Númenor, but clearly he still wished to wear it in mind.  The land was charred and blasted where he stood, the stain slowly spreading in all directions as the undergrowth wilted in his heat.  He wore a spiked crown of iron like his cruel master of old, as terrible in his corruption as he must have been beautiful in his beginning.


Thranduil met his smoldering gaze without flinching, though it sickened him and was difficult to endure.  He remembered his father, Oropher, savaged in the wastes of Mordor.  He remembered their distant kinsman Finrod Felagund, mauled in the ruins of his own tower.  He remembered the legions of slain Galennath whose destruction this demon had wrought, and he let his anger quell his fear.


“So, it is you indeed,” Thranduil said at last, daring to break the silence.  His triumph was cold and cheerless. “You have taken great pains to hide yourself, Gorthaur.  Why show your face now?”


For a long moment, Sauron did not deign to answer.  Then he moved almost imperceptibly, like the shifting of a coiled snake, apparently cruelly amused by his adversary.


“You knew me from the start, Oropherion,” he said, his ancient voice like the rumble of thunder, causing the very earth to quake, “you who were so scarred by the sight of Mordor that you have since looked for me in every shadow.  Revealing myself to you is of no consequence.  Even if you should again expose yourself to the ridicule of the Wise, they will never bestir themselves to act upon a dream from the fevered mind of Thranduil.”


The truth of it was maddening.  Thranduil reached for his sword and found he had none.  He did not know what he would have done were it otherwise, for he dared not go any nearer that fiery spirit.  All thought of armed resistance was vain.


“Here I have you,” Sauron continued, “the last of the haughty Elven-kings, Thranduil the Outcast, obstinate son of Oropher the Fallen, Lord of the hapless Iathrim, alone in this forsaken corner of the world with only these woodland folk at your call.  Why do you not flee from me?  You have fled from everyone else.”


The valley itself seemed to constrict, drawing them ever closer.  Thranduil found himself rooted in place, transfixed by those eyes like coals which seemed determined to bore into his very heart.  He shook off the spell with an effort. 


“I shall never yield to you!” he managed to say at last, stumbling backward.  He felt strangely off-balance and disoriented, unable to put any distance between them however hard he tried.  “These people have pledged themselves to me, and I am their sworn guardian.  Are you so diminished in defeat that you lack the strength to finish me?”


The Dark Lord’s face twisted into a sneer.  “Who are you to threaten me?” he fumed, growing larger and darker.  “A vainglorious whelp playing at a game of crowns, neither ringbearer nor blood of the West.  Crawl back into the ruin before I wither in one breath that infamous vigor for which your mother named you!”


He lunged to strike him.  Thranduil, unable to escape, threw up his hand and caught the shattering blow with a strength that surprised them both.  Enraged, Sauron smote him to the ground with a devastating bolt of raw power.


Stunned, Thranduil choked as Sauron seized him by the neck and dragged him to his knees.  A hot black gauntlet clamped upon his brow, and many horrible incantations in the Black Speech were thrust into his mind by sheer burning force.


Thranduil roared in pain, rebelling against the violation with every ounce of strength he possessed.  As Sauron’s grip upon him faltered, he was able to form the words of a fraught counter-spell.


“Be still and do not speak.  Depart, you accursed, into the everlasting darkness prepared for you,” Thranduil commanded rapidly, focusing all his anger and pain and terror against that repugnant grasp.  “Hear my voice and be gone.  The shadow does not hold sway yet, not over me!”


Incredibly, Sauron was thrust back and Thranduil twisted away.  He raised his hand and braced himself against whatever evil might be thrown at him, but was only able to endure the blast for a few moments before he was hurled into the brake.  He rolled and was up again in a moment, but Sauron caught him by the wrist and bent him to the ground, assaulting him again in the vile tongue of Mordor.


“Depart, seducer, depart with your deceits!” Thranduil countered, more desperate now.  “Flee the light and return to darkness.  Cease!  Be silent!  Be gone!  Release me!”


Again he tore away, but he was weakening quickly, and Sauron seemed ready to have done with him.  Thranduil retreated as best he could, dazed and depleted, but the lord of Dol Guldur closed the distance and struck him down for the last time.  Thranduil cried out as his ancient scars from the Last Alliance tore open from within.  Spectral light poured from his wounds, and he felt his body flooded with fire.


Thranduil howled, frantic to stop his ears to the barrage of noxious words.  “No!   Tauron be with me, Enner give me strength, Gilthoniel protect me!  Belain, help me!  Help me!”


He was dimly aware of a brilliant flash of light and a rolling blast of frost which stopped the malicious incantation and set Sauron bellowing in pain and surprise.  Thranduil opened his eyes and found himself in his bed.  Gwaelas was standing over him with a dim lamp.


“My lord,” Gwaelas whispered in the sudden stillness, obviously perturbed, “can I assist you?”


Thranduil sat up immediately, disentangling himself from the bedding.  He felt lightheaded and weak, and he clenched his fists to steady his hands.  “What did you hear?” he demanded.


“I heard a good deal of thrashing about, and I thought I heard you call for me,” Gwaelas said.  “But it seems you were sleeping all the time.”


“It was a dream,” Thranduil assured him.  It was no secret that his dreams had often been dark, and he was still too shaken to discuss the particulars.  “You may go.”


Gwaelas seemed unconvinced, but he did not press the issue.  “As you wish, sire.” He lingered a moment more, then brightened the lamp and hissed sharply.


Thranduil looked down and saw at once what Gwaelas was gaping at.  The scars he had earned in Mordor were now as livid as if newly healed.  Thranduil touched his shoulder and found it hot and painful, more like a burn than a puncture.  He shuddered despite himself, unable now to wholly dismiss the terrifying encounter.


Gwaelas seemed to need no explanation, his face pale and drawn.  “It is that Annatar,” he said bitterly, “that Gorthaur of Mordor!  It is!”


Thranduil wanted to deny it, but Gwaelas read the truth in his eyes.  Gwaelas, alone of all his companions, had experienced the same brazen intrusion of the Dark Lord into his mind.  He understood as no one else could.


“It is,” Thranduil confirmed wearily, “but do not speak of it, not to anyone.  I will not have that name pollute my house until it can no longer be avoided.”


“Will you not tell Lord Celeborn and his Lady?”


“To what purpose?” Thranduil asked, more sharply than he had intended.  “No, there is nothing more to be done at present, and my conviction alone accounts for very little.  No spirit so vain as he can resist revealing himself to his enemies in time.  We need but wait.”


Gwaelas grudgingly accepted his decision.  There was clearly much more he might have said on the subject, but the guardianship and governance of the realm were not his province.  It was his duty, however, to attend the needs of the one who must bear that burden for them all.


“Wait a moment,” he said, and left abruptly.  He soon returned with a linen sheet and a small pot of honey.  “I never expected to have to dress these wounds again, my lord,” he said wryly, laying out the sheet to shear it into strips.


“You fetched that very quickly,” Thranduil observed with good-humored suspicion.  “Have you a hoard in your room, Gwaelas?”


“Perhaps I have,” the other said with a vague smile.  “One does work up an appetite in the King’s service.”


Thranduil was very glad not to have to call Noruvion or any of the other healers.  He had no convincing explanation to offer, and hysterical rumors would profit no one.  As ever, his secrets were safe with Gwaelas.


When all his injuries were dressed and bound, Thranduil stood and pulled a shirt from the wardrobe.  He was restless and agitated and needed time to collect his thoughts.


“You will sleep no more tonight?” Gwaelas asked.


“I dare not,” Thranduil confessed.  “But I have no wish to importune you further.  Take some rest, Gwaelas; I can look after myself.”


Gwaelas gave him a narrow look, but moved to obey nonetheless.  “Do not neglect to call me at need, my lord,” he insisted, gathering up the linen remnants and his empty honey pot.


“You know I never do.”


Thranduil left his chambers when Gwaelas had gone, too unnerved to be still.  Though the pain had subsided, the uncomfortable restriction of the bandages against his skin was reminder enough of what had passed between him and that brooding shadow in Dol Guldur.  It may indeed have been all in his mind, but it had not been of his making.  However he was destined to meet his death, he hoped it would not be like that.


He wandered aimlessly through the halls and corridors, and those who were also about at that hour went out of their way to give him a wide berth.  He resisted the visceral urge to descend deeper into the caverns. He would not cower like a beaten dog, nor reward Gorthaur’s attempt to intimidate him with this galling reminder of the beating he had already been dealt.  Instead, he eventually directed himself up and out into the open air.


Whatever evils might be lurking in the darkness, it was otherwise a pleasant night.  The stars and waning moon gently illuminated the landscape, and chorus of insects flooded the wood with soft noise.  Only the best scents of summer were on the air, the fresh damp of earth, the warm fragrance of flowers, and the pulsing green life of the forest.  Thranduil breathed deeply.  Sometimes that indomitable green smell was more refreshing than sleep.  The thought of Gorthaur spitefully choking it away was unbearable.


He continued upward along the rough path leading around the hill and to the summit.  It was a much longer walk than a direct ascent, but it was easier and gave him a chance to gather himself.  He still felt a sickly chill in his heart where his enemy had touched him.  He tried to shake it off, but it was deep and persistent.  It was a sobering wound, though not a mortal one. 


Thranduil did not know what Sauron’s ultimate purpose had been in assaulting him, but he was certain he did not wish to find it out.  Although he had been constrained at last to call upon the Powers in his torment, he had no way of knowing whether he had been spared by their intervention or simply by Gwaelas’ timely interruption.  He was loath to invoke them directly unless at the last need.  He had reasons of his own.


He was abruptly startled out of his own thoughts by the sight of Galadriel.  She was seated on a low-slung branch amid a rambling copse of trees on the path ahead, her gaze trained resolutely south.  She did nothing to acknowledge him, but Thranduil knew he had not escaped her notice.


“This night is not so quiet as it would seem,” she said at last as he approached her.  “There are many powers at work in the dark.  I must confess that I am glad to see you on your feet after being so sorely tried.”


“I have not been broken yet,” Thranduil said guardedly.  How much did she know?


“The Necromancer has grown very bold,” Galadriel observed.  “Your defense was impressive, especially considering your limitations.”


“I am more keenly reminded of them each day,” Thranduil said, frowning.  There was no sense in pretending to be more than he was while in her presence.  As ever, he felt she saw straight through him.


Galadriel smiled wryly in the dappled starlight.  “Each of us feels the strain in his own way,” she said.  “We can only do as we must and commend the rest to the grace of the Valar.”


Thranduil’s mouth twisted into a grim smile.  Her pious platitude struck him false, and indeed darkly ironic.  Perhaps she had meant it that way.  “You will find that I have not an overabundance of piety where the Belain are concerned,” he admitted.


She finally turned toward him, a soft expression on her face.  He could see that her opinion of him had improved considerably since they had met in Lindon, and he even recognized an ungrudged respect he had never expected to be afforded to anyone of Oropher’s house.  “The same could often have been said of me,” she owned.  “You obviously know the essentials of my tale; whence come your reservations?”


Thranduil scoffed quietly.  Memories flooded back to him, memories of abandonment, of helplessness, the utter terror of floating adrift in a rough sea, their ship burst asunder in dragon fire.  “The War of Wrath did not leave us wholly unscathed,” he said simply. “It seems equally difficult to survive the violence of those who come to cleanse Middle-earth as of those who would destroy it.  I fear their help almost as much as I fear to be abandoned by them again.  It is difficult to trust when we have been so often forsaken, yet I cannot afford to despair.”


Galadriel said nothing for a moment.  She was not ignorant of the history of the Iathrim.  “Do not despair,” she agreed at last. “Only we have the power to inflict that poison upon ourselves.  Surely Melian intercedes for you.” 


His visceral reaction must have been obvious, because she read it at once.  She even seemed a bit scandalized.  “You have not yet wholly forgiven her,” she surmised.


This thread of conversation was dredging up a host of festering grievances Thranduil had not dwelt upon for centuries.  “Her blessings brought us to grief in the end,” he said tersely, “as I often find to be the case.”


Galadriel pursed her lips, apparently reluctant to comment.  “Whatever the consequences,” she said at last, very deliberately, “the Valar of Aman have never acted but for our good.  You will not find peace by distancing yourself, as I well know.  In any case, I perceive you have not been left completely friendless, for it was with the timely assistance of Radagast that you cast off the Necromancer tonight.  He is a valuable ally, whatever his origins.”


“Indeed,” Thranduil agreed.  He would have to thank the old wizard, perhaps send some wine and a good horse down to Rhosgobel.  It did give him some comfort to know he was not completely alone in his struggle.


“It eases my mind to know there is one here competent to reinforce you,” Galadriel said, echoing his thoughts.  “If you are ever forced to yield before this devilry, it may go very ill for the rest of us.”


“I have no intention of yielding,” Thranduil assured her.  “I have lived in his wood longer than in any other place, and I am bound to it and its people.  I know the distress of abandonment too well to inflict it upon them.”


Galadriel sighed, bearing the weight of many concerns as gracefully as she could.  “With Angmar rising and Arnor poised to fall,” she said, “I hope we are all prepared to be as obstinate as you are.”



Chapter 26 ~ Holding the North IV




Caladwen urged her exhausted horse to greater speed as she neared the capital.  A fresh mount had not been available when she had required it, and they could not afford more delay.  She must reach the King.


The poor beast was ready to collapse when she turned him into the royal stables and leapt from his back.  An irate stableman shouted at her, but she was already sprinting across the green outside.  She burst through the door of the guardhouse and confronted the sentries on duty, always members of Thranduil’s personal guard.


“Take me to the King at once!” she demanded.  “I have news from the southern marches.”


“That will not be possible,” Lancaeron said, apparently unimpressed by her agitation.  “Give us your report, Captain, and return to your post.  Commander Dorthaer will be informed.”


Blindsided by the obstruction, Caladwen could not at once frame a coherent objection.  “Did you not hear me?” she asked incredulously, trying not to become shrill.  “I have urgent news from the south.   You must take me to the King immediately!”


“We have orders to the contrary,” Lancaeron explained firmly.  “Whatever your urgent business, the Commander is empowered to address it.”


Seeing that she was accomplishing nothing, Caladwen ran from the guardhouse and directly toward the palace gates despite the vigorous protests from Lancaeron and his fellows.


“Captain!  Captain Caladwen, wait!  Stop!”


Commander Dorthaer himself overtook her and halted her in her tracks.  He looked very stern, but also concerned. “The King is with his guests, and is not to be disturbed with petty affairs,” he said.


“If this were a petty affair, I would not have ruined a horse to bring word of it here,” Caladwen insisted.  “Please, Commander, I beg you, take me to the King.”


 



“These beasts have been our most recent study,” Thranduil said, leading Celeborn and Galadriel into a wide woodland aisle into which had been built two rows of fox dens.  Many of the occupants began whining and snuffling as they approached. “Once we had identified enough suitable individuals for breeding, they proved remarkably pliable.”


Thranduil opened the enclosure of one of their most prized vixens, and was welcomed with a display of affectionate submission.  He lifted out an older kit and gave it to Galadriel. 


“I had not expected to inspire such a love of animal husbandry when I gave you that dog so long ago,” Celeborn said, watching as his wife nuzzled the creature. 


Thranduil’s smile fell as he saw Dorthaer approaching with a disheveled captain.  He motioned for Celeborn to allow him a moment, and then turned to intercept them.  “I expect there is a compelling reason for this interruption,” he said severely, implying that there might be consequences if it were otherwise.


“I beg your pardon, my lord,” Dorthaer said, “but Captain Caladwen has just arrived from the south with all haste.  I judged the matter to require your immediate attention.”


Thranduil felt that sinking feeling in his stomach.  He remembered Caladwen from their shared experience of the great storm when she had been a child.  Though he had followed her career with only casual interest, he knew her courage and recognized how shaken she was.  “Very well, say on,” he said.


“Werewolves,” Caladwen said, calming herself enough to deliver a clear report.  “Great numbers of werewolves have crossed our borders. They have terrorized the Woodmen and harried our people for several days.  We were able to cull them at first, but their numbers are growing and we are overwhelmed.  Prince Legolas reinforced us yesterday with his patrol, but he agrees that only an action of the army will suffice to stem this invasion.  He awaits your judgment, my lord.”


Thranduil considered his answer.  This had to be some new machination of the Necromancer.  Gorthaur had always been a master of werewolves.  Had the attack upon him in his dreams last night been but a feint in this new assault?  He beckoned to Celeborn and Galadriel, who stopped pretending not to listen.


“Dorthaer,” Thranduil said, “see that the general call to arms is sounded at once.  Prepare my guard to ride within the hour.  Caladwen, you will return to your post with us, so see yourself mounted.”  When they had gone, he turned back to his guests.  “It would seem I am needed elsewhere,” he apologized.  “You may remain here if you wish; I am certain there will be no danger this far north.”


“We will not sit idly here while you ride into peril,” Galadriel objected.  “Do not be too proud to accept our assistance.”


“My pride is not at issue now,” Thranduil insisted.  “I cannot otherwise guarantee your safety.”


“We have never asked you to,” Celeborn said.  “Our safety is our own affair, and we will ride if you allow us.”


The bellicose call to arms sounded from the sentries’ horns, and was immediately echoed from the surrounding woods.  In a moment it would be reverberating throughout the length and breadth of the forest.  All those assigned to the first muster knew their duty.


“Very well,” Thranduil relented.  “Avail yourselves of whatever arms you wish, and be mounted as soon as possible.  The forward ranks will even now be forming to the south.  We will ride with my guard to the immediate relief of Legolas and the Woodmen.”


They nodded and hurried away after returning the kit to the fox master.  Thranduil strode across the green through the growing frenetic activity.  The ranks of a large division of archers and infantry were already forming, soldiers running to their posts from all directions.  Each captain came with the wolf entrusted to his keeping, and the kennel master had already released a large pack of the beasts to join the march.  A strident howl went up in accompaniment to the war horns.


Gwaelas was ready when Thranduil arrived and armed him with heavier boots, leather gloves, light mail, coat, breastplate, spaulders, vambraces, belt.  “What fresh horror awaits, my lord?” he asked simply as he handed the King his sword and dagger.


“Guarhoth,” Thranduil said grimly, securing his weaponry.  “Legolas has called for our support. See that Linhir knows he is empowered to rule in our absence.”


 



The King’s Guard was thundering south within the hour, exactly as he had wished.  The army followed at a brisk run, able to maintain order even at speed, the ranks fluidly forming and reforming as they plunged through the forest growth.  Had they been moving against an equally organized enemy, Thranduil would have stayed with the greater part of his forces, but because it was an infestation rather than a military invasion, he rode ahead to reach the beleaguered scouts as quickly as possible.  They slowed only to rest and water the horses, and were drawing near the southern marches by nightfall.  A sentry intercepted them and directed the King toward Lord Anárion’s stronghold.


The direction proved unnecessary.  The large settlement of Woodmen was garishly bright in the deepening darkness, alight with scores of torches and bonfires, and suffocatingly crowded.  Hundreds of frightened people had congregated there with their wives and their children and even some of their livestock, huddling together in the relative safety of the light.  A loud murmur grew as they gave way to the Elvenking and his militant entourage, an expression of the desperate hope that he could banish these new terrors of the night. 


Anárion had established his command in the chieftain’s hall, the largest building at his disposal.  It had high ceilings and long tables for feasting and drinking, but there was no merriment now.   Instead, Elvish scouts were running in and out like ants with reports from the field and instructions for their captains.  Thranduil swung down from his winded mount and entered without waiting to be announced, startling the assembled company inside.


“Thranduil!” Anárion greeted him, his voice colored by equal measures of relief and apprehension.  “It is good that Caladwen reached you so quickly.  Come and allow me to explain.”


“Please, do,” Thranduil said, approaching the table, which was at present covered with an array of hastily drawn maps.  “We encountered nothing on the road.”


“I expect not,” Anárion agreed.  “We suspected you may be near when we suddenly lost sight of the beasts as well.  Your presence in the region has driven them to ground for the moment.   It may prove difficult to flush them out, but at least it has given us a chance to form our forces into a proper cordon.”  He turned back to the map.  “Here is this village,” he said, pointing it out.  “Here are our people.”   Small stones littered the scene in what seemed a haphazard arrangement. “These,” he continued, indicating more permanent marks made in ink, “are the reported kills.” 


There were at least forty such marks already. 


There was a brief scuffle at the door as a hulking bear of a Man roughly elbowed his way inside.


“His name is Berangár,” Anárion whispered discreetly.  These mortal chieftains succeeded one another so quickly that it was difficult to keep abreast of them.


Berangár’s eyes were drawn immediately to Thranduil.  “Are you the Elvenking?” he asked brusquely, apparently equally uncertain of whom he was addressing.


“I am,” Thranduil answered, forgiving his manner.  There were several great Elven lords in the vicinity at the moment, and although each woodland chieftain sent Thranduil some small tribute upon coming into his estate, very few met him in person anymore.  “What do you wish of me, Berangár?”


“I pray you can rid us of these beasts, my lord!” Berangár said.  He was not pleading, for he was clearly much too proud to abase himself, but his desperation was evident.  “Perhaps you wield a power over them we do not.  They are not like any wolves we have known.  They unlatch our doors, open our windows, and carry away our children!  None dares sleep for fear of them.”


There was another small commotion outside as more scouts returned to report, this time Legolas and Anárion’s son, Annorín.


Legolas offered his father a slight bow, refraining from a more familiar embrace in mixed company.  His relief was plain.  “We have reformed our lines, my lords,” he said, taking the liberty of rearranging the stones on the map.  “All is strangely quiet.  If they show themselves, they will be prevented from penetrating any farther north.”


“We await the King’s command,” Anárion nodded, effectively giving place to Thranduil.


All eyes upon him again, Thranduil drew a deep breath and allowed his unease to calm and coalesce into something hard and focused.  His Queen’s words of encouragement always returned to him in these moments, all the clearer now that he had been stirring her memory.  He was the King, and all that was yet green and good in that wood answered to him.  He would not be defied in his own realm.


“Berangár,” he said, “I shall require as many stout-hearted Men as your defense can spare to bear torches.  Legolas and Annorín, have the trees hung with as many lanterns as can be had, and see fires kindled wherever they can easily be contained.  Let us drive these craven creatures from the shadows.”


His orders were swiftly implemented.  There would never be enough fire to effectively illuminate the entire forest, but gradually the darkest places for several miles in all directions were bathed in a flickering golden twilight.  It was more symbolic than practical, but it heartened the Men who were nearly blind in the darkness.


Despite the work, all voices were hushed.  There was a tension in the air that all could feel.  It was uncomfortable and unnerving, like the calm before a lightning strike.  Thranduil rode in wide, slow circles around the besieged village, silently supervising the preparations and gathering his strength.  The quiet life of the wood answered him readily, offended by the pollution it had suffered.  He was the King, the guardian, the defender of this place, and it would obey him. 


When all was ready, he rode into a torch-lit clearing and stopped.  The oppressive silence had by now become almost unbearable.  His senses sharpened, Thranduil felt the heartbeat of his horse, the shifting of the soldiers, the slow motion of the stars.  He felt Galadriel move to assist him, but Celeborn quietly restrained her.  He felt the breathing of the forest, its griefs and wounds, the dark places where unnatural creatures hid themselves, and, as acutely as ever, he felt Gorthaur’s gaze upon him.  In all things it was an eerie waking parallel of his dream battle with Dol Guldur, but this time he had his sword.


“I know you are here,” he said heavily, his voice magnified throughout the forest as if it came from the trees themselves.  “Come into the light.”


It was not a request, but a dreadful command.


A clamor arose to the east as the monsters began to flee their cover, and the hunt was on again.


Forced to betray themselves, the werewolves rampaged through the forest against the army of Men and Elves, but the cordon stationed in the north prevented their escape deeper into the wood.  Thranduil charged freely across the battlefield for several hours, effectively driving the beasts into the open as they fled from him.  As kills were reported, he ordered the cordon to begin tightening.  As it did, the freakish howling became more strident.


“Beware, Thranduil!”  Radagast suddenly called over the din.  “These beasts are driven by a will other than their own!”


Thranduil had only a moment to acknowledge the wizard’s presence and consider his warning before a bristling werewolf flew at him.  Rearing back, his horse caught the attack in the chest and its throat was ripped out.  Thranduil fell and rolled to his feet just as a second and third knocked him to the ground.  One bit into his shoulder as he caught the other’s maw on his wrist and slashed its neck.  Dorthaer struck one in half with his sword and Lancaeron pulled the jaws free, but another threw itself upon the King even as he stabbed it through the heart.  A horse collided with another.  Celeborn swung down from the saddle, pulled Thranduil to his feet and stood back-to-back with him, sword in hand.  One after another the werewolves rushed at them, compelled by a single-minded madness, but by now the King was surrounded by a thicket of allies and the battle was little more than a slaughter.


Then, as suddenly as it began, the attack ended.  Thranduil and Celeborn slowly lowered their blades, standing with the others amid fourteen slain monstrosities, no two of which looked quite alike.  Only one remained alive, and it lay moaning pitiably in the dirt at their feet.  It yowled in its canine voice as if trying to speak, and its eyes had depths Thranduil had never seen in any animal.  They were a repulsive sight, long exaggerated limbs, matted hair in a confused mix of color and kind, and a shape that was not ideally formed either for crawling or standing upright.


“This is without doubt the work of the Necromancer,” Radagast said, coming to stand with them.  Without fear, he reached down and placed a hand on the beast’s head and was answered with a mournful whine.


“What devilry is this?” Celeborn demanded.  “Has he bound the spirits of the dead in the bodies of wolves?  Is it Elf or Man?”


“This one is a Man,” Radagast said.  “His name I cannot know, and indeed he himself may not remember.”


“What are we to do with him?” Thranduil asked, reluctant to kill him now yet pained by the thought of letting the wretched creature live.


Radagast whispered several words under his breath and pressed his hand firmly upon its head.  “Be at peace,” he said softly. “Break these monstrous bonds and fly upon the path appointed to you.”  At last, the tortured spirit fled its unnatural prison with a sigh, and the beast slumped dead.


A somber crowd of onlookers was gathering as the dispersed soldiers returned.  A horn call signaled an end to the fighting, and the fires were gradually extinguished just as the first glow of dawn broke above the trees.


“Were they all Men?” Galadriel asked.


“Perhaps,” Radagast said.  “Perhaps not.  They may well have been Elves or Orcs.  Who can know what happens in the deep places of Dol Guldur?”


Thranduil felt sick imagining that some of the hideous corpses littering the ground might have been inhabited by his own people.  It unexpectedly dredged up the darkest and most conflicted emotions of his past, the memory of the Kinslayings.  The thought that in some way he had once again been compelled to kill his own kind made him physically want to retch.


Celeborn must have noticed he was suddenly unsteady.  “Thranduil, are you hurt?”


“Not gravely,” Thranduil assured him, refusing the support of the arm he offered.  The marks of the teeth on his armor were plain to see.  The storm of grief, rage, and resentment he did not intend to reveal to anyone yet.  Galadriel was looking at him with an expression of profound compassion, but he shot her a narrow glance in return.  He did not want pity, he wanted assistance to prevent this sort of atrocity.  He knew the lack of it was not her fault, but at that moment he did not care.




Chapter 27 ~ Holding the North V




Thranduil stayed in the south with the army for a few more days, riding a slow patrol and waiting to see if Dol Guldur was spent for the time being.  Radagast rode with them offering some help in cleansing the wood, although he agreed that it was best that Thranduil do most of the work as it would be his to maintain. 


Knowing he would be poor company the day after the battle, Thranduil kept mostly to himself at the head of the column.  Behind him, Celeborn and Galadriel were occupied in conversation with Legolas.  The wood appeared to be perfectly quiet, almost as if what had happened the previous night had also been no more than a nightmare.  Thranduil wished he could indulge in that peaceful illusion, but he could not forget so easily.


When they encamped that night to rest the horses, he immediately sought solitude high in a beech tree.  There he stood upon a flet overlooking the moonlit treetops, struggling to forge the disorder of his emotions into something more useful.


Gorthaur was clearly trying to either kill him or break his will.  Either outcome would be a victory.  Obligated to present himself for battle yesterday, he could either have been mauled to death or live to appreciate the grotesque surprise which had been prepared for him.  Even in hindsight there was nothing he could have done differently.  He felt manipulated, violated yet again, which was difficult enough to endure without that specter leering in the back of his mind.


It angered him intensely to be continually prodded in his deepest wounds.  He could ill afford the pain.  Pain made him weak.  Unfortunately, the only way he knew to resolve pain was to accept it, galling though it was, and laboriously close his wounds again.  To resist would only cause it to fester.  Gorthaur was cruel; he could expect no better from him.  He would endure it and he would not be broken.  Healing himself from the inside out had become a cold act of defiance.


The rustling of countless leaves in the wind helped give him the peace he could not yet find in himself.  It was a great, deep sound, like waves on the sea.


It was a difficult balance, he reflected, to heal many times without becoming callous.  He did not want the pain, but neither did he want to lose the capacity to feel it.  He may yet be wounded, but he was determined that he should not be hardened.


So deliberate was his effort to completely clear his thoughts that he was startled by a soft rapping on the floor of the flet.  Legolas was standing on the ladder below, leaning on his elbow and looking up at him with a quizzical expression.


“You have been very withdrawn,” he said, masking his concern in gentle good humor.  “You have left me quite alone to engage your remarkable guests.”


“I am sorry,” Thranduil apologized.  “Recent events have given me a great deal to think about.”


Legolas nodded, seeming to understand it was not something he wanted to discuss.  “Will you join us for supper?  You are missed.”


“Not yet; I have work to do.  But come up for a moment.”


Legolas obligingly climbed onto the flet and came to stand beside him.  In many ways, his presence did more to ease Thranduil’s mind than the entire wood could.  Young and strong, a gentle prince and an accomplished soldier with a bright mind and a great heart, his son was the incarnation of all the best things in his life.  He was reminded each time he looked at him.  “You and Anárion acquitted yourselves well,” he said.


“I only wish we had not been obliged to send for you at last,” Legolas said.  “Their numbers proved too great for us.”


“No matter,” Thranduil assured him.  “For good or ill, it was my task.”


“We did not realize you were entertaining.”


Thranduil laughed, a smile further lifting his spirits.  “Celeborn and his lady have seen much worse than this.   Indeed, they were quite keen to ride with us.  Your clever diversion may prove the highlight of their journey.  Dare I ask your impression of them?”


Legolas lifted an eyebrow as he considered his answer.  “One seldom sees their like in the world anymore,” he said, “at least not outside of Imladris.”  He glanced at his father and smiled.  “And Lasgalen.  Is Lord Celeborn very like Grandfather?”


“Celeborn is very like Oropher,” Thranduil confirmed.  “More reserved, more subtle, but very like him nonetheless.  I hope you have the chance to know him better before they leave us.”


“I would like that,” Legolas agreed.  He surveyed the horizon Thranduil was fixated upon.  “Is anything moving tonight?”


“If it is, I cannot see it,” Thranduil admitted.  “One moment our foe is gleefully revealing himself, the next he is cloaked in shadow.  Perhaps he hides himself from Radagast.  I can be sure of nothing.”


“If he has hidden himself, then leave him be,” Legolas said.  “He takes enough of your happiness as it is.  We are sure of you, and you may be sure of us.  Now come down and eat before he stirs up some other trouble for you.”


Thranduil allowed himself a bittersweet smile as Legolas unwittingly spoke with his mother’s voice.  It made it difficult to argue with him.  “Very well.”


 



The royal party at last returned to the north when it seemed there would be no further trouble, leaving a third of the army to strengthen the southern border.  The rest of the summer proved to be very quiet.  Thranduil endeavored to enjoy it, but occasionally he could not help wondering how the Necromancer might be spending his time.  With an effort he put all such grim speculation out of his mind.  He could do nothing but what he had always done, watch and wait.


Celeborn and Galadriel stayed with them until the first blush of autumn color touched the leaves.  Their intention was to continue on to Imladris, and they were obliged to ride before winter closed the mountain passes.  Thranduil and Legolas were there to see them off quietly before dawn.


“I trust our situation was not a disappointment to you,” Thranduil said to Galadriel.


“Indeed not,” she assured him.  “You have done well with the resources you have been given.  Now that I have seen your difficulties, I am better able to appreciate the concerns you brought to the council.  I shall tell Elrond what we have seen.”


“Thank you, my lady.”  Thranduil did not expect anything to come of it, but he could appreciate at least being vindicated in Imladris.


After seeing his wife mounted, Celeborn turned and offered a hand which Thranduil accepted.  “Once again, it seems I must leave without being of any help to you,” he said, a half-smile veiling a bit of frustration and a great deal of sincerity.  “I do regret that our paths have been very different despite our kinship, that I have not been able to assist you in any meaningful way throughout the many adversities in your life.”


“The circumstances were hardly your fault,” Thranduil protested.  He tried to pull back his hand, taken off guard by his sudden earnestness, but Celeborn held fast.


“No,” he agreed, “but I might have done more, and I have wanted to tell you so for a great many years, so do not excuse me just yet.  We are of one blood, you and I.  So many times I should have been with you.  Even now I have nothing I can offer.  I have no army, no power against Dol Guldur.  Yet I want you to remember that I am ever mindful of my valiant cousin in Mirkwood, and I hope that before the end we may face our foes together, united as we might have been before.”


The sentiment touched Thranduil more deeply than he expected it would, as if some deep and unacknowledged resentment was suddenly exposed and satisfied.  It was true that Celeborn had been absent from the worst disasters and the deepest griefs which had come to define their shared Iathrin heritage.  Thranduil had never begrudged his escape, but it had made them more distant than kin so near were wont to be.  Still, even though they rarely saw one another, knowing that he remained in the world with him made it less of a lonely place.


 “Ai, Celeborn,” he sighed, “let us not visit the past.  It is beyond all help.  Our only power lies in how we greet the future.  And to that end,” he said with a jaded smile, “I look forward to meeting you on the battlefield, my lord.”



Chapter 28 ~ Hands of a King



As the interminable winter wore on, conditions in Rhovanion became only more intolerable.  The frozen ground rarely allowed graves to be dug. The most industrious people had combined their efforts to erect crude stone barrows over the first of the dead, but now there were too many and the elements too cruel for them to keep pace.  The corpses of both Men and horses were piled together in great heaps beside the road, quickly frozen and shrouded in snow.


Badutharya struggled with the temptation to despair as he stuffed a rag into a drafty crack in the wall.  His wife and daughter already lay frozen outside, and now his young son had woken with the fever. He would join the dead soon enough if nothing was done.  But nothing could be done.  Could it?


Despite the apathetic malaise which had descended upon his neighbors, Badutharya was determined to act, and quickly.  He had nothing to lose by trying.  He could not despair while there was yet some effort to be made, and he would not sit idly by and watch the plague take his son as well.  The others could ridicule him if they wished.


He carefully wrapped the boy in his bedding and tied it securely around his body.  He fetched their horse and harnessed it to the makeshift sledge that had been used to transport firewood.  Bundling his son in layers of deer pelts, he secured him to the sledge between two sacks of grain and covered his face with a cloth so that he might be warmed by his own breath.  Already dressed in his warmest clothes, Badutharya slung a satchel of dried meat over his shoulder and prepared to leave.  He reflected that he may never return.


“You really mean to go, then,” his neighbor said gruffly, observing his preparations. 


“Sitting here will profit me nothing,” Badutharya said.  “I will risk the journey.”


“You will risk ending your days in a dungeon,” the other retorted.  “What have they to do with us?  You will be punished if you find them at all.”


“Stay and die, then,” Badutharya quipped, tired of the useless speculation.  “I am going.”  He climbed astride his horse and urged it forward, dragging the sledge over the snow toward the dark wood beyond the horizon.


 



The coldest depths of winter still lay over the land, reluctant to give place to the first thaw of spring, although they knew it could not be long in coming.  Tavoron pulled his cloak closer about him to shelter from the wind as well as he could.  Night was coming and the wind was gaining strength, promising another blast of ice and snow.  It was not the most pleasant weather for standing watch at the border, but such was the fate of the youngest soldiers in the army.  Someday he would have rank enough to pass the time in the guardhouse as Captain Bregonsúl was doing now.  Until then, he must try to make the best of it.


The landscape was a barren waste of white in the growing darkness, as it most often was in those days.  The first flurries began swirling in the wind, obscuring all but the sharpest sight.  Tavoron forced himself to concentrate, continuously searching the darkness for anything that moved.  It was a dull task but an important one, a chance to prove his competence for greater things.  He had to look twice when he actually spotted a dark figure at a distance.


Surprised and now quite curious, Tavoron observed that figure for a moment before making his report.  It certainly did not appear threatening.  It looked like a lone Man struggling through the snow and against the storm, dragging a load behind him.  He could not guess what madness had driven him there.


Tavoron dropped out of the tree and returned to the guardhouse.  “Captain Bregonsúl,” he said, “someone approaches, but I suspect he deserves our assistance more than our shafts.” 


“Very well,” Bregonsúl said, standing.  “Come with me.  Rostáron, relieve him.”


Together they returned into the teeth of the storm, the wind lashing them even more severely when they stepped beyond the shelter of the trees.  Tavoron pointed out their quarry.  The Man seemed to have stumbled and was having some difficulty regaining his feet.


Bregonsúl scoffed.  “What is that fool doing out here?  Come on; he cannot last much longer in this weather.”


They ran across the snow for some distance before they reached him.  His strength was clearly at an end, spent pulling what seemed to be a shrouded body on a sledge by an empty horse harness. 


“Alive or dead?” Bregonsúl demanded as Tavoron investigated the body.


“Alive!”


“Make room, then.”


Quickly they shifted the child on the sledge to make room for the man, secured them both, and began dragging them to shelter.


 



The late blizzard had blown itself out by morning, leaving a frozen world obscured by great gleaming drifts of snow.  The air was clean and crisp, and the wood was completely silent.  Thranduil had come out to see the dawn, enjoying the deep peace while it lasted.  For a moment there was no war, no worry, no grief, no conflict, only cold silence.  It was not unlike the cold silence of death as he had briefly felt it in Mordor, a peace beyond all pain or care.  He wondered if Lindóriel had felt that peace in the end. 


He did not know what was wrong with him.  He had been unusually melancholy most of the winter.  Seasons did not affect him that way.  This time it did not feel like an obsession of the Necromancer, although the shadows were most certainly strengthening in the south.  His most likely suspicion was that these were not his own emotions at all.  There were disadvantages in being so attuned to the spirit of the land.  They had heard some report of the plague in Rhovanion, but it must be grim indeed if the collective grief of a completely foreign people was acute enough to touch him here.


He heaved a frosty breath and watched it dissipate like smoke.  He did not begrudge Men their infirmities.  Life was cruel enough without being wasted by disease. 


The vicarious gloom had stirred up a fog of latent desires in his own heart.  He desperately wanted his wife.  He wanted more children.  He wanted grandchildren.  He wanted to wake from this dismal reality and find himself in Eryn Galen a thousand years ago when everything had been perfect.  He knew it was a vain and self-indulgent complaint, but there it was.  He shook it off in the next moment, determined not to be completely victimized by circumstances beyond his control.  He still had his duties.


People had begun to stir, and the fragile peace was broken.  Smothering his unruly sentiments, Thranduil turned his back on the landscape and returned into the caverns, prepared to face the day.  Surely Linhir was ready with the morning’s business by now.


Linhir was indeed ready, waiting beside the vacant throne with dispassionate patience.  “Your Guardsmen have returned from the north,” he said as Thranduil resumed his seat.  “They are prepared to give their report, if you wish to hear it.”


“I do,” Thranduil confirmed.  Occasionally the most adventurous Guardsmen would be sent in pairs to scout the surrounding lands if news of them came too infrequently. 


Garavorn and Ascaron, who had been waiting in the wings, presented themselves immediately.  “We first visited the people at the Long Lake, my lord,” Garavorn said. “They continue to prosper, and thus far the plague in the south has not reached them.” 


Thranduil nodded.


“More concerning is our report from Ered Mithrin,” Ascaron continued.  “The Dwarves who venture there say the Orcs remain, and that the dragons are breeding in the Withered Heath.”


Now Thranduil frowned.  “That is concerning,” he agreed.  “Fire-drakes or cold?  Have they been able to cull the beasts?”


“Not as yet, at least not with much success.  They are elusive, but have been sighted numerous times.  Rumor is chiefly of cold-drakes, but there has been mention of at least one fire-breather.”


“I do not relish the idea of living so near a den of dragons, whatever their kind,” Thranduil said.  "I wish to be kept informed of this.  Remind me to send you back in two years’ time.”


“Yes, my lord.”


“Is that all?”


Neither of them had a chance to answer as a commotion at the other end of the chamber drew everyone’s attention.  The guards at the door stopped some of the new arrivals, but permitted a young soldier to enter.  He marched immediately toward the dais and offered a crisp military bow.


“My King,” he said, “I am Tavoron of the southeast watch, and we rescued these Men of Rhovanion last night in the storm.  They urgently desire an audience with you.”


“For what purpose?” Thranduil asked guardedly.


“Mercy, my lord, mercy!” the Man at the door began shouting in rough Sindarin.  “Hear me, I beg you!”


It was as if the mute anguish lying heavily on Thranduil’s heart had found a voice.  It was extremely discomfiting to hear.  He motioned to the guards.  “Let them in.”


The Man approached with weary but determined steps, bearing in his arms the limp figure of a boy obviously riddled with the plague.  Tavoron stepped back, ready to steady him from behind, but despite his distress, the Man was obviously quite proud and determined to stand on his own feet.


“You may speak in your own tongue, sir,” Thranduil said.  “I know it well enough.  What do you wish of me?”


“We are dying, my lord,” he said, exhausted.  “We are all dying.  My son is even now at the point of death.  They say the hands of a king are the hands of a healer.  Our king is dead.  I was mocked for my hope, yet I could not rest until I had brought him to the only other king in this land.  I beg your forgiveness and your pity, my lord.”


Pity Thranduil had in abundance, but the request caught him off guard.  He was not unfamiliar with the lore surrounding the supposed healing charism of kings, but it had never been of great concern in Greenwood.  He had served in many roles in his life but never specifically as a healer.  More often than not, he was called upon to play a more violent and destructive part.


The Man’s strength faltered and he would have fallen, but Tavoron caught him.  Thranduil sighed sharply; there was much he could have said, but what was needed now was action, not explanations.  “You two,” he said to Garavorn and Ascaron, “take them to Lord Noruvion.  I will follow.”  To the Man he said simply, “Peace.  You will be attended.  Go with them.”


Tavoron took the boy while the others supported the father and led him deeper into the caverns.  Linhir turned to Thranduil when they had gone.  “That was unexpected,” he said dryly, making a note in his record.  “What will you do?”


“Whatever we can,” Thranduil said.  “If they must die, it will not be alone and in the cold.  Beyond that I can promise nothing.”


When he did follow them to the healers’ chambers, Thranduil observed that Noruvion and his fellows had already settled the two of them in clean beds.  They had been stripped of their soiled clothes and bathed, and now both seemed to be resting peacefully.


“What do you make of them?” Thranduil asked in a low voice, unsure how much Sindarin their unexpected guests understood.  “Is it bad?”


“It is very bad,” Noruvion confirmed with a grim look.  “I have made some study of the Woodmen and their ills, but I am no master, and this contagion is virulent.  It is well advanced in the boy, and I fear the father is now succumbing to the first effects.  I gave them sleeping draughts while we debate our next course of treatment.  It seemed the most merciful thing to do.”


The father seemed well asleep, but the boy had begun to move fitfully.  His attendants surrounded him once again but he suddenly vomited blood on them and the bed linens.  Immediately they set about cleaning up the mess.


Noruvion frowned and looked to Thranduil again.  “I was told why they came,” he said.  “I will do what I can, but if the King is able to do anything for them, he had best do it quickly.”


“He will try,” Thranduil promised.


Resolved to face this challenge like any other, he exchanged his elaborate tunic for the simple one all the healers wore on duty, appropriated a stool, and seated himself between the two beds. 


Thranduil turned his attention to the boy first.  He was drifting in and out of the sleep induced by Noruvion’s decoction.  They regarded one another in silence for a few moments, he too ill to speak and Thranduil disinclined to agitate him with words.  He was burning with fever, and his thin body was mottled with bruises.  It was painful just to look at him.  Thranduil imagined entire realms of Men suffering like this and knew it was no wonder he had been able to feel the echo.


Unsure how to proceed against this illness, Thranduil gently lay a hand on the boy’s chest to see what if anything he could learn about it.  In the quiet of his mind, he perceived it as a darkness, a pernicious rot, not unlike what he daily contended with in Mirkwood.  That sort of foe he could understand, and he determined to counter it accordingly.


 



Legolas rode back to the palace with his guard at dusk after completing his rounds.  It had been a fortnight of travel, but he had visited and inspected every contingent of soldiers posted in the southeast, and now he had a great deal to report to the King.  Erelas met him as he strode through the halls, receiving his cloak and weapons as he shed them.


“Erelas, where is the King?” he asked.


“He is with the healers, my lord.”


Legolas stopped and rounded on him.  “What?”


“The King is well,” Erelas assured him quickly, recognizing his concern, “but he has received some guests who are not.”


“I see,” Legolas said flatly, though he did not see, not yet.  “I will find him there, then.  Thank you.”


As soon as he was dressed in fresh clothes, Legolas took himself to the healers’ chambers.  He intercepted a royal tray of food at the door and dismissed the servants to return to their other duties.  Inside, he immediately saw his father seated beside a bed, garbed as all the healers were, dutifully catching vomit in a towel.


“They told me I would find you here,” Legolas said, bemused, “although no one has yet explained why.”


“Ah, Legolas!” Thranduil stood, snapped his fingers and gestured toward his charge, summoning the other healers to relieve him.  They came at once.  “How are our people in the south?”


Legolas did not answer at once.  “Ai, Father, you look like you have been in battle.”


Thranduil glanced down at the blood spattered across his chest.  “It is a battle of a different sort,” he said, “but a battle nonetheless.  It has been an unusual day.”  He eyed the tray.  “Put that down.  I will be with you in a moment.”


Legolas obeyed, setting the tray down on a table and waiting while Thranduil quickly washed his hands, pulled off his soiled outer tunic and replaced it with a fresh one.  It was perhaps no surprise that when he sat down he reached for the wine first.


“They are from Rhovanion,” he explained, seating himself beside Legolas at the table but maintaining a clear view of his two invalids as the others hovered over them.  “The father brought his son here so that the King might heal him.”


Legolas frowned.  “Do you know how to cure this plague?”


“I have not the vaguest idea,” Thranduil admitted, “but it seems they have more faith in me than I do.  Perhaps I have something yet to learn about myself.”


Legolas shrugged.  “Our people are well enough,” he said, finally answering the question, “but the shadow of Dol Guldur is unquestionably growing on our borders, and I have learned more about the extent of the plague while in the south.  We have heard that it is ravaging Gondor.  Some sought to flee into the north only to find it here as well.”


Thranduil was quiet.  Legolas could see him thinking.  “I do not like it,” he said at last, his gaze distant.  “Dol Guldur is strengthening, dragons are multiplying in Ered Mithrin, and now this plague is bleeding Gondor.  I suspect none of these are unrelated.”


Legolas’ eyes narrowed.  “What has the Necromancer to do with Gondor?”


Thranduil sighed heavily and drained his wine.  “The Gondorrim are the guardians of Mordor,” he said at last, lowering his voice.  “It is probably high time I confess to you that I no longer have any doubt about who haunts Dol Guldur.  He has shown himself to me many times.”


Legolas suddenly felt cold.  He had known from the beginning that his father suspected Sauron, but to have it confirmed was still a chilling thought.  The weary shadows that had been growing behind Thranduil’s eyes for the past decades now made sense.  “Who else knows?” he asked.


“Gwaelas,” Thranduil said, “and now you.  I cannot name anyone else of consequence who would believe me, although I voiced my suspicions quite explicitly in Imladris centuries ago.  They all know what I think, yet Gorthaur torments me so brazenly precisely because he knows they will not believe me.  Thranduil is not the Wise one, not the Learned one, not the Discerning one; he is the anxious one, the damaged one.”  He stopped and bit back whatever remained of his personal grievances.  “I should have confided in you sooner.  You are not a child in need of protection.”


Legolas smiled gently.  “I forgive you,” he said.  “Do you intend to tell the others?  Linhir, Galadhmir, and the rest?”


“I am undecided yet.  The knowledge would change nothing about our strategy and yet may incite unnecessary panic.  I do not want to be dishonest with our people, but neither do I want to cripple their courage.”


“I think they would overcome it,” Legolas said.  “I obviously have no memory of the Last Alliance, but I suspect even those who do would be willing to defend their own wood even against Sauron.  You are not asking them to march into Mordor.”


Thranduil twitched violently, as though he only just stopped himself from saying something visceral and ill-advised.  “I would say ‘never again,’ but who else is there?” he asked, exasperated.  “Númenor is gone.  Elrond has no army to speak of.  Arnor is all but broken.  Amroth has the Galadhrim in Lórinand but they are fewer than we are.  And now Gondor is dying of plague.  I fear that if Sauron ever regains a foothold in Mordor, someone from Greenwood may have to set foot in that blasted land again.  I pray it is not you.”


“You are protecting me again.”


Now it was Thranduil who smiled, though it was a brittle one.  He threw up his hands.  “I cannot help it,” he said.  “I wanted a better life for you, Legolas, at least better than mine.  I may have failed to hold the peace for you, I may have failed to keep your mother alive, but I would at least like to spare you the horror of Mordor.”


That brief glimpse into the pain and regret Thranduil harbored in the deep places of his heart stung Legolas unexpectedly, and protest immediately rose within him.  He leaned in and looked his King directly in the eye.  “You have never failed me, Father,” he insisted.


Thranduil closed his eyes and set his jaw the way he did when struggling with strong emotion, and Legolas knew his words had hit the mark.  It was enough.


Neither of them said anything for a time.  While they had been talking, Noruvion had been busy dosing their guests to keep them insensible, taking first the boy and then the father for a brief soak in one of his experimental herbal baths, and then returning them to freshly made beds.  Job done, he approached them now.  “Whatever you are doing must have some merit, my lord,” he said to Thranduil.  “The boy is not much better, but he is certainly no worse, which is better than I expected.  Please continue.”  He left them as abruptly as he had come, no doubt to go brew more medicines.


Legolas turned to his father again.  “You let your food get cold,” he chided him.


Now when Thranduil smiled it was a warmer and less haunted expression.  “Your news did not leave me with much of an appetite,” he said, “but I will make an effort if you insist.”


 



Over the next days the condition of the plague victims began to slowly improve.  They were surely benefiting from the rest, and Thranduil was certain all Noruvion’s treatments were far from useless.  He continued to play his part as best he was able, strengthening their slumbering wills and their exhausted bodies for the fight back to health.


The father woke first.  He was still weak, but all trace of the sickness seemed to have left him.  Noruvion allowed him to remain awake to eat properly and focus on regaining his strength.  He was permitted to walk freely throughout the chamber, but more often preferred to remain in his bed to better keep watch over his son.  He seemed rather awed by the boy’s improvement.  All the bruising had gone, and his face was a much healthier color.  It seemed they might even dare to hope he would make a full recovery. 


“I still do not know your name,” Thranduil said at last.


“I am Badutharya,” he said.  “My son is Bargavia.”


“It must have required much courage, Badutharya, to come so far on little more than a rumor of hope.”


“I did not feel very courageous,” Badutharya insisted.  “There was nothing else I could do.  Some said the Elvenking was proud and cold, that he would send me away or punish me for my audacity, but I did not believe them.  Those of our fathers’ fathers who had encountered the Elvenking esteemed him highly.   It is my experience that the opinions of Men change while Elves do not.”


Thranduil nodded graciously.  “I do not know how much of it we may credit to any virtue of mine,” he said, “but I am told we may expect your son to be himself again very soon.  Have you anyone awaiting your return in Rhovanion?”


“No one,” Badutharya said bitterly.  “They were all buried beneath the snow before this.”


“Then, for your good faith, I grant you leave to remain among us with your son for as long as you wish,” Thranduil decided, “perhaps until the plague has passed.  It seems to me that you have both suffered enough.”


As it happened, they had only another day to wait until Noruvion deemed the boy strong enough to wake.  He remained in the master healer’s care for several days more, but his recovery was widely celebrated by the Elves who had been charmed by the story of Badutharya’s devotion and the happy outcome of his appeal to their King’s mercy.


Outside of Mirkwood, however, there was nothing to celebrate.  The plague continued to devastate the mortal races in Rhovanion, in Gondor, and even in Eriador and Arnor, as Thranduil learned after sending a courier to Elrond in Imladris that summer.  Not until the following year did it begin to dissipate, and by then the death toll was catastrophic.  Entire cities stood vacant and abandoned.  And all the while the dark places in Mirkwood grew ever darker.


Thranduil became increasingly vigilant as the year wore on.  Dol Guldur was biding its time, not challenging them directly but gathering itself for what he imagined would be a brutal assault later.  Determined that they should not be caught unawares, he reinforced and reequipped the army, turned out greater numbers of soldiers for longer periods of time, and fortified their borders as well as could be done.


His suspicion that the plague was but a part of a larger scheme seemed justified when Mithrandir presented himself in Mirkwood.  As usual, he was not an overwhelming source of information, but said he had felt compelled in the wake of the plague to confirm the readiness of the Elven realms to defend themselves.  Thranduil showed him everything, knowing Mithrandir at least appreciated his position.  The wizard was gone again as abruptly as he had arrived, ostensibly to confer with Radagast and inquire next of Amroth in Lórinand. 


Thranduil could not help feeling like a pawn in a very large game—an important pawn, but a pawn nonetheless—and it made him restless.  Part of him was desperate to strike an offensive blow for once, weary of always waiting to be attacked.  But, alas, that was not the nature of this war.  This was a war of endurance, as unpleasant as that was, and if the events of his long life had taught him anything it was that he could endure a great deal.



Chapter 29 ~ Blood and Roses




Thranduil jolted awake from a vivid nightmare in the early hours of the morning.  He sat up immediately in the dark, unsettling the dogs, a cold dread in the pit of his stomach.  In truth it had been less a nightmare and more a tortured memory of the first great invasion which had ultimately taken Lindóriel’s life.  He steadied his breathing and tried for a moment to sort his emotions from his senses.  Was it just a dream?


No, it was not.


All the lamps in his room and indeed in all the palace flared to life as he leapt out of bed.  “Gwaelas!” he shouted, tearing open the wardrobe.  “Gwaelas!”


Gwaelas appeared a few moments later in his nightclothes, eyes wide, looking as though he may well have fallen out of bed in his haste.


“There you are,” Thranduil said, pulling on his tunic.  “No, do not dress me.  Sound the alarm immediately.  Deploy the first guard and stand all reserves.  Have word sent to Oldoric and his Woodmen.  They are coming.”


Gwaelas went at once.  Soon all the caverns were ringing with trumpet blasts and the dull roar of a multitude rushing to their duties. 


Despite the gravity of the impending danger, Thranduil allowed himself a twisted smile as he secured his belt and stamped into his boots.  As diligently as Sauron tried to mask his movements, the spirit of the wood itself had betrayed him to them.  They would be ready.  As was now his habit before a battle, Thranduil spared a moment to fold the Queen’s silk pennon and slip it beneath his tunic over his heart.


Dressed, he loosely tied back half his hair and entered the next chamber, his private armory.  The Guardsman Neldorín was on duty that morning and he quickly assisted the King into an armored tunic with metal scales across the chest and shoulders.  Gloves, vambraces, bow, quiver, knives, sword, and his crown of twisted steel.  As he gathered himself, Thranduil separated the mute distress of the land from his own apprehension and hardened his resolve.  If Sauron was at last confident enough to move against them, so be it.  They could not be any more prepared than they were.


“Yes, we are ready,” he whispered to himself.  He turned to Neldorín.  “Are you ready?”


Neldorín smiled.  “Yes, my lord, I am.”  He was young, but very keen, as his attainment of his current position attested.


“Come, then.”


The army was already gathering outside in the moonlight.  When Thranduil appeared at the gate they greeted him with a roisterous war chant which, while rather ill-disciplined, spoke well of their morale.  A large contingent of his Guardsmen were waiting beneath his banner in front of a host of soldiers which was still growing.  Thranduil accepted his horse from Dorthaer and swung astride.


They marched south at a brisk but steady pace.  They had only to reach the southern border before the hosts of Dol Guldur, and they had the advantage of being able to travel by day as well as by night.  Sadly, they had not as far to go as they once would have; Mirkwood had been slowly encroaching upon them again.  Local emplacements of soldiers were reorganized into reserves behind the main force.  Those people who would not be fighting were sent north in a column to shelter in the caverns.  Thranduil and the largest divisions faced southwest, awaiting the attack which would almost surely come around the western spur of the mountains.  Anárion led a smaller division which protected the King’s eastern flank against any attack from the opposite direction.  Galadhmir would even now be marching to reinforce the northwest borders against any possible surprise from that quarter.


When the battlefield had been chosen and the soldiers assigned their posts, scouts were sent ahead to sound the alarm at the first sight of the enemy.  The eastern riverbank was fortified against enemy foot soldiers.  Everyone else took the opportunity to rest their horses and briefly refresh themselves with rations of waybread. 


Thranduil paced through the ranks, giving his horse a respite although he was too restless to be still himself.  The air felt thick with dread.  The birds had ceased their singing and the wood was unusually quiet. 


Legolas found him at the center of their lines.  “The northern positions have been secured as you ordered, my lord,” he confirmed.  Then he discreetly lowered his voice.  “Are you certain we should not lay a wider defense?”


“We are spread thin enough,” Thranduil said.  “I suspect it is not primarily our territory the enemy seeks to capture.  Wherever we place ourselves, he will find us.”


Legolas nodded grimly, bowed, and took his leave without another word, though Thranduil landed an affectionate clap on his armored shoulder in passing.  The battles in Mirkwood had become increasingly battles of blood, and Thranduil was uncomfortably aware that he and his heirs were the targets of special malice.  He could never command Legolas to stand down and shelter in the caves, sorely though he might be tempted.  He would have preferred to keep his son forever beyond Gorthaur’s reach, but that was not within his power.


His messengers returned from the Woodmen that night and brought news that the enemy host had crossed the Old Forest Road and would likely reach them the following night.  Oldoric had retreated before them as planned and would wait to attack from the rear after the Elves had sufficiently bled them.


The last preparations were made.  Advance ranks of clandestine archers fanned out ahead of the main force.  There was nothing left to do but wait.


Thranduil closed his eyes in the gloom, appreciating the fragile silence as evening lengthened.  His initial fears had calloused into a simple anxious anticipation, but he sought to quiet even that.  You are one of the Meliannath of Doriath, she had said, and you have ruled this wood for a thousand years.  You will succeed because you have no choice.   Her memory was as alive as ever.  He was aware of the pulsing life of the soldiers all around him, of Anárion to the east, Galadhmir to the north, Linhir in the caverns, but most acutely of Legolas in the ranks behind him.  There truly was no choice but to succeed.


A distant horn call was their first warning of the attack, the signal that the first of the advance archers had exhausted their arrows and were falling back behind the second.  A flurry of movement swept through the waiting army as they all pulled themselves to attention and readied their weapons.  Thranduil mounted his horse and retreated a bit from the frontline with his guard as his commanders had implored him to do.


Again the horns sounded, nearer now, as the second rank of archers fell back.  The first rank regained the main lines and reformed into reserves in the rear.  One of them came to make his report.


“It is a great host, my lord,” he said, regaining his breath, “of both Orcs and Men.  And they have trolls.”


“How many?”


“Three at least.”


“Delightful.”  Thranduil turned to his right.  “Dorthaer, trolls.”


The captain nodded and turned to sound the alarm.  “TROLLS!”


The foremost ranks immediately began stringing fine nets of rope between the trees above the height of the mounted horsemen.  It would not hold them long, but any obstruction could prove advantageous.


The third rank of forward archers scrambled across the river, up the far bank and behind the lines just moments ahead of the enemy assault.  A howling mass of Orcs surged towards them out of the darkness, but their progress was rudely halted by a thick barrage of arrows.  The ranks behind continued to press on over the fallen but were themselves struck down by a second volley.  Still the others pressed forward in an irresistible wave until the archers were obliged to give way to the spearmen. 


The Elvish lines were holding well, but then all three trolls crashed through the wood and entangled themselves and their great clubs in the nets.


“Reserve archers, take them!”  Thranduil commanded, and all those who had gathered behind him turned their shafts upon the beasts, aiming primarily for the mouth and eyes.


The trolls roared beneath the onslaught and thrashed violently against the nets.  One succeeded in uprooting the trees which bound him, sending them crashing down on those Elves who were not quick enough to scatter.


“My lord, come away!” Dorthaer barked, turning his horse against Thranduil’s to push him back as the troll tore free and dragged itself upright.  Scores of foot soldiers rushed in to defend the King’s retreat.  Reluctant to leave them, Thranduil nevertheless turned with the others and rode to join the western flank.


The troll, however, in its blind fury began smashing its way toward the western ranks as well.  Thranduil and his guard moved once again, this time to the east.  The troll wheeled about and lumbered after them.


Thranduil drew rein sharply and turned to face it.  Nothing remained of its eyes but thickets of spent shafts, yet he had begun to realize this troll was not so blind as it may seem.  Recognizing the game and whose will ultimately drove the confrontation, he drew his sword to meet the Necromancer’s assassin.  Better to have done with it than allow it to continue trampling his army.  “Flight is futile,” he said to Dorthaer.  “Follow me and bring it down.”


 



Legolas rushed his archers forward to deal with the rampaging troll but arrived just as the King and his entire guard charged into the fray.  It looked like utter madness to him, but there was no stopping it now. 


As Thranduil rode in diversionary maneuvers, the others took up the fallen ropes and ran them around the beast’s legs and the nearest trees.  Realizing its peril, the troll began swinging its club wildly and managed to land a shattering blow which sent both the King and his horse tumbling across the field. 


Every available soldier rushed in to overwhelm the monster.  Legolas and two Guardsmen went to recover the King.  Thranduil was crawling out from under the wreck of his dead horse, bloodied and a bit stunned at the very least, struggling to regain the breath which had been knocked out of him.


“Ai, Father!” Legolas complained, harsh in spite of himself.  “A little more caution from you would be appreciated.  I have no desire to see you die today.”


Thranduil coughed and glared at him tolerantly, though he accepted the hand he was offered and pulled himself to his feet.  He took a quick inventory of his injuries and found himself bruised but unbroken, though several armored scales had been torn off his chest.  “Where is my sword?” he demanded.


The ground shook as the troll was at last pulled off its feet.  Its limbs were bound ever more tightly by the Elves swarming over it.  Guardsman Neldorín recovered the King’s blade and returned it to him.  It was a clear relief to all involved to see Thranduil was still fit enough to rejoin the battle and dispatch the beast.  With one blow he swept away the broken shafts and then thrust his sword into the eye socket, forcing it in up to the hilt.


The other two trolls were brought down in similar fashion nearer the front, their mouths and faces choked with arrows, their bodies now an extra obstacle to the invading army. 


Trees were burning, though some attempted to contain the flames by throwing water from the river.  There was no rest as wave after wave of enemy Orcs came against them, always beaten back, but at a mounting cost.  Legolas could not help but notice that each new enemy charge seemed spearheaded exactly where Thranduil placed himself, leaving him with the eerie impression that the Necromancer was present on the field somehow.  He did not have to ask his father if he was aware of it; Thranduil seemed to be quite adeptly turning the situation to his advantage, moving tirelessly up and down the lines, goading his enemy into attacking the strongest ranks in turns. 


After several hours of bloodshed, the scouts confirmed that the invading force had been reduced to half its strength.  Thranduil sent them to Oldoric and the Woodmen who were waiting west of the battle after their feigned retreat. 


Before the trap could be sprung, the enemy assaults resumed with renewed fury.  The Master of Dol Guldur had grown weary of the stalemate and was determined to break the Elvish lines.  Hordes of monstrously large Orcs and Wargs threw themselves against the bloodied defenders.  A few did breach the lines and had to be dealt with by the dwindling reserve ranks.  The western defenses buckled beneath the strain, but a contingent of lightly wounded veterans newly returned to the battle rushed forward to secure the King’s flank.  Then the lines to the east faltered, forcing Thranduil to sacrifice half his strength in the center to reinforce them.  The Orcs pressed their advantage, suffering ruinous casualties but pounding the thinning Elvish defenses again and again and again until finally the force of it broke through the center.  The King himself charged forward with his guard in a desperate attempt to hold the line and rally his beleaguered soldiers.  The ferocity of his attack did halt the enemy advance, but his standard bearer was slain and the King’s colors fell.


Confusion and dismay threatened to overwhelm the last defense, but Thranduil pulled his banner up again and wielded it like a javelin, making himself extremely visible for the benefit of his army.  He was entirely too visible for Legolas’ comfort.


The horns of the Woodmen sounded in the west as Oldoric and his army swept in to rout what remained of the invasion.  The Elves sounded their horns as well, both to welcome their allies and to intimidate their foes.  Victory was near.  The lines bristled anew, inspired with fresh hope and purpose.  Then a great black arrow struck the King in the chest. 


Relief turned immediately to horror as Thranduil slowly slid down the pole of his standard and landed heavily on his knees.  His guard immediately surrounded him and his banner fell again.


Legolas clawed his way through the confusion.  “Stand!” he roared at the wavering ranks, dragging up the royal standard and thrusting it into the hand of the nearest soldier.  “As you love your King, stand!”


Thranduil was still conscious, though his jaw was firmly set against the pain and his breathing was shallow.  The shaft had penetrated his damaged armor and lodged dangerously near his heart.  He said nothing, but Legolas could see the grim fear in his eyes.


“My lord, take him to Noruvion!” Dorthaer begged him.  “We will hold the line in his stead!”


Legolas needed no encouragement.  He grasped his father’s hand and helped him regain his feet, and together they headed behind the lines.  Somehow Thranduil managed to find the strength to walk under his own power most of the way, though Legolas felt him leaning more heavily upon him with each step.  Then he stumbled and collapsed, unable to draw breath and drained of all living color.  Legolas quickly gathered him in his arms and carried him the rest of the way, beginning to fear the worst.  At last he reached the house bearing the master healer’s colors and kicked open the door.


Noruvion looked up from his work and immediately paled.  “Ai, Elbereth!   Get off my table!” he shouted at a soldier with a less worrying wound.  Legolas lay the King down and Noruvion immediately checked for a pulse.  “Still very strong,” he said, grimly bemused.  “But his lung has clearly collapsed; he cannot breathe properly.  Expose the wound,” he instructed his assistants. 


As they began cutting away what remained of the armored leather and the tunic beneath, Noruvion selected his tools.  “This will be a delicate task,” he told Legolas.  “If by some miracle his heart is whole, it will be difficult to remove the barb without injuring it.  Yet we do not have the luxury of time.”


Legolas did not answer, and Noruvion did not seem to expect it.  It was all horribly familiar, the same way his mother had died, the curse of the Necromancer which relentlessly stalked his family.  He felt maddeningly helpless in the face of it.  Would each of them endure this fate in the end?  Who could really hope to outlast such malevolent hatred forever?


When the King’s armor and clothing were pulled away, Noruvion abruptly stopped.  “Fanuilos!” he breathed.  “Dare we hope?”


Legolas looked and saw that the arrow had driven a folded green cloth into the wound.  The breath went out of him as well as he recognized his mother’s pennon.


Noruvion gently pried the wound open and teased out the bloody cloth, bringing the barb with it.  “I would not have believed it,” he said with a triumphant smile, “but she has saved his life again!  It is his own rib that has pierced his lung and done the damage.  Now, let us do our work and not disappoint her.  Legolas, hold his arm.”


Legolas took firm hold of his father’s left hand as instructed.  Noruvion felt for the correct place and then stabbed a slender metal tube into Thranduil’s side.  That brought him around with a strangled shout that had more blood in it than voice.


“Thranduil, be still!” Noruvion commanded him.  “It may have been much worse.  Be still, and you may yet live.  I need you to breathe.”


Thranduil did his best to comply, and as the blood drained he could indeed breathe more evenly and some of his color returned.  Yet the ordeal was far from over.  Noruvion was obliged to enlarge the wound and―with the help of many hands―pull aside the flesh and damaged bone to repair the deepest injury, which he began to carefully stitch closed with a strand of Thranduil’s own hair.  The King had thankfully lost consciousness again by then, already enduring greater agonies than anyone could be expected to tolerate gracefully.


Despite his renewed hope, Legolas was deeply perturbed by the sight of his father’s beating heart exposed, blood coming from his mouth, draining from his open chest, dripping off the table.  Despite all Thranduil’s renowned strength, despite the vigor of his immortal life and how deeply the force of his presence was entrenched into the very life of the forest, he was truly never more than a heartbeat away from death.  None of them were. 


Legolas hoped he would never again have so lurid a reminder.


 



Thranduil knew he was sleeping, but was so deeply content that he had no desire to stir yet, enjoying that oblivious and timeless twilight before waking when the paralysis of sleep had not yet dissipated.  He was aware of being very comfortable and warm, his head resting on her lap, the gentle weight of her hand on his chest, the drifting scent of her hair.  He wanted to open his eyes to look at her, but was reluctant to disturb the perfect tranquility of the moment.  Instead, he drew a deep breath of her perfume, but was surprised by the stabbing pain which now quickly dragged him back to consciousness.  It took him a moment to comprehend his surroundings as all his senses returned to him, and at first he thought he recognized her eyes above him.


Legolas smiled gently.  “I am pleased to see you finally awake, my lord,” he said.


The sight of him was probably the only possible salve for the bitter disappointment of realizing where he really was.  “How long have I slept?” Thranduil asked.


“Nearly seven days,” Legolas confessed, “and it was a blessing that you did, though it did little to comfort the anxieties of your people.  Some have already begun elaborate plans for your burial.”


A large vase of the Queen’s roses stood beside his bed, which must have partly inspired his dream.  His whole chamber was decked with roses, and he was certain their perfume had been applied to his pillow.  “And did you expect me to leave you that way?” he asked.


Legolas smiled.  “No.  You are far too stubborn to die, Father.”  He tried to make light of it, but his concern was obvious. 


As he recalled his fractured memory of the battle, Thranduil himself did not like to dwell on how near a miss it had been.  He saw his chest was still tightly bandaged, and he was not particularly eager to see the damage yet.  “Just how elaborate were these plans?” he asked wryly.


“You would have been proud,” Legolas assured him.  “They tell me even your coronation was not half so grand.”  He sobered and retrieved something from the bedside drawer.  “I do not know how much you remember, but Noruvion wanted you to know that this is what spared your life.”


Thranduil accepted it with a sudden pang of a thousand emotions.  Lindóriel’s pennon was still folded, though rumpled and saturated with his blood.  The tip of the barb had left a clear impression, but the silk had not torn.  He had been prepared a moment ago to dismiss his dream as a pleasant fantasy, but this felt like more than mere coincidence.  Perhaps that was irrational, but there it was.


“Mithrandir has come,” Legolas told him.


Mithrandir always seemed to come when he was worse for wear.  Thranduil stowed the bloody pennon beneath his pillow and forced himself to swallow the raw sentiment of the moment.  “Help me up,” he said, trying to shift his sluggish body into an upright position.


“What?”


“Come now, I refuse to be entirely unpresentable.”


“He has already seen a great deal of you in far worse condition,” Legolas protested, but he obliged.  He then went to the door to instruct the guard to summon the wizard.


When Mithrandir swept inside, he looked as inscrutable as ever.  “I see you have been living dangerously again, my lord,” he said brusquely.  “Still determined to spend yourself in a hopeless war with the arrogant thought that you might outlast the wrath of Dol Guldur?”


“Hopeless, is it?” Thranduil snapped back.  “It is not I who has been found wanting on the battlefield these six hundred years.” 


Mithrandir’s face broke into a smile with a sharp twinkle in his eye.  “Oropherion, if Middle-earth knew more lords like you, the great Elvish armies of the last age would still stand.  But you did give us all a fright in these last days.  Do not imagine I do not value you.  Now, if you will indulge me, I would see your wound.”


Thranduil narrowed his eyes suspiciously.  He never ceased to be amazed by the ease with which this enigmatic figure presumed to command him in his own halls.  “Why?”


“Oh, come now.  Legolas promised to show me again, but your waking has denied me a more convenient opportunity.”


Thranduil relented, as he always seemed to do, and Legolas cut away the bandage.  The flesh wound seemed to be largely healed except for the fading bruise and the new red scars which marked Noruvion’s handiwork.  The bone was still sore, but it would heal soon enough.


“As Master Noruvion tells it, it is a miracle you still live, Thranduil,” Mithrandir said grimly.  “But so it has been for many ages, I understand.  There must be some power looking after you.”  He straightened again and leaned on his staff.  “As I see you are well enough, I will leave you to mend in peace.  I must go to confer with Radagast and see if we may determine what damage you have done to the Necromancer’s army.  Oh, and if I may be so bold as to offer a bit of advice,” he said as he turned to take his leave, “if these are the kinds of weapons and dangers you will now be facing, my lord, you may do well to reconsider the sort of armor you wear.”


 



Too restless to remain in bed, Thranduil spent much of the afternoon slowly pacing about his chamber coaxing some life back into his limbs.  Legolas returned to join him for supper in the evening, apparently reluctant to leave him for more than a few hours at a time. 


“You need not linger here all day, Legolas,” Thranduil assured him.  “I am glad of your company, but surely you have other concerns.”


“You are all I have left to me,” Legolas said quite candidly over his wine.  “I have no more pressing concern than to see you whole again.”


Thranduil was both touched and sorry to hear him say it.  Would his son ever find a worthy companion and sire sons of his own?  Not if he continued as he was in an attitude of self-imposed celibacy.  “I need not be,” he protested gently.  “It grieves me to see you still alone.  Is there truly no one else in this wood you could love?”


Legolas scoffed under his breath.  “I have noticed that Captain Caladwen seems to have developed feelings for me.”


Thranduil considered the possibility and shrugged.  “She has certainly proven very capable,” he said.


Legolas shook his head.  “I cannot reciprocate, certainly not in any way that would be satisfactory to her.  Therefore, I have studiously ignored it.”


Thranduil sighed heavily.  “Love is a wonderful thing that often makes everyone feel wretched,” he observed.  “Speaking of which, whether by design or not, I dreamed of your mother.”


Legolas’ smile was bittersweet.  “I hoped you would.  Perhaps it was cruel, but I thought you might rest better with thoughts of her.”


“It was pleasant while it lasted,” Thranduil said, feeling equally fortunate and desolate.  He supposed they must do what they always did and somehow make the best of it.


 



After sleeping for so long Thranduil found he had absolutely no desire to sleep any more.  That night he made his slow and careful way along the path toward the top of the hill in search of the stars.  They shone as bright and clear and familiar as they ever were, one of the few aspects of near-permanence in their world.


Did those same stars shine upon the Blessed Realm?


“Where are you, Lin?” he asked, not expecting an answer, however desperately he wanted one.  Sometimes she felt so close that he could not be certain whether it was entirely an illusion of his own imagining.


The pain was still surprisingly raw.  It never healed, and by now he suspected it never would.  He had learned to dull the grief of all the other countless bereavements he had suffered in his life, but this was different and far more intimate.  How, while surrounded by his friends, his son, and his chosen people could he still be so unbearably lonely?  No one could fill her place, and the ever-present emptiness would not be forgotten.  For a moment he regretted that he had not been killed, though once again he felt she had somehow intervened to hold him to his appointed task.  The only thing he would find more intolerable than living without her would be to disappoint her.


When he returned into the caverns Legolas met him with a collection of sketches.  “Forgive our initiative,” he said, “but some days ago, as Mithrandir suggested, I took it upon myself to commission some proper plate armor for you.  The best smiths have submitted their visions for your approval.”


Intrigued, Thranduil leafed through them but only had to look once before he knew his favorite.  “This one,” he said.  “This one knows me.”  The branching tree patterns on the breastplate recalled his father, Oropher.  The articulated plates across the shoulders and the subtly fanciful leather feathers which lay like wings over the mantle recalled Oropher’s father, Thoron of Doriath.  It evoked in one image the rugged pride of his bloodline, its fragmented history and yet its common purpose.  If the sketch alone was compelling enough to inspire him out of his melancholy now, he could only imagine wearing it would strengthen his resolve for years to come.  He returned the drawings to Legolas.  “He may begin his work at once, and compliment him on his fine eye for detail.”


“As you wish, my lord.”




Chapter 30 ~ The Pieces Are Moving




Time inexorably marched on as it always did, and the years passed without major incident in Mirkwood.  The Elves, however, were far from idle, and the King’s chance survival of what should have been a fatal wound in the last battle did not go unnoticed.  The sudden demand for layered silk beneath every soldier’s armor created a new thriving industry which utilized an all too plentiful local resource, the webs of the giant spiders.  The cloth they produced was not half so fine as that used for heraldry, but it was quite effective.  Additionally, the innovation came with the grim satisfaction of turning one of the Necromancer’s horrors into an asset.


The slow drudgery of maintaining their borders continued for more than a century before the King’s scouts returned from abroad with alarming reports from Rhovanion.  Foreign armies from the east were sweeping into the lands left desolate by the plague.  Known as the Wainriders, they were apparently a rapacious people who slaughtered or enslaved all before them.  Disinclined to cultivate the favor of so unsavory a civilization, Thranduil closed his borders against them in an unspoken agreement of mutual disregard.  Any who fled from them were welcome to slip inside and join themselves to the Woodmen. 


Later it was rumored that Gondor’s initial campaigns against the Wainriders had met with disaster, and even that the Gondorian king had been killed.  It made Thranduil suspect that the relative peace in Mirkwood had little to do with any weakness of the Necromancer, but rather that he was busying himself in other lands.  The consequences of the plague continued to manifest themselves.


A new race of Men appeared beside the Anduin in those days, driven north ahead of the invaders.  Their lord, Marhwini, was presented to the Elvenking by the chieftain of the Woodmen and was granted leave for his people to seek refuge in Mirkwood if they wished.  They called themselves the Éothéod and seemed to have built their culture around their skill as horsemen.  They were allies of Gondor, and as such Thranduil was inclined to give them whatever protection he could, though he was not at liberty to commit to any overt campaign against the Wainriders.


The realms of Men continued to slowly crumble for another hundred years until finally Thranduil received a panicked message from Elrond in Imladris that the Witch-king of Angmar had at last completed the long conquest of Arnor and that the loss of all Eriador may be at hand.  Life was consequently very tense for several months as the entire kingdom prepared to possibly be attacked from both the west and the south.  The next year, however, brought word of a startling reversal of fortune in which it was reported that Angmar itself had fallen, conquered by an army led by Lord Glorfindel and Prince Earnur of Gondor, assisted by a remarkable but diminutive people who had established themselves in Eriador.  The Witch-king himself had unfortunately escaped and was abroad in the land.  As relieved as he was by the news of peace in the west, Thranduil did not relish the idea of the Nazgûl roaming through the country once again.  Like all foul things, he suspected they would be drawn to Dol Guldur before long.


The scattering of Angmar’s filth had consequences for the surrounding territories, and that same year King Frumgar of the Éothéod found the increased presence of Orcs and the growing boldness of the Wainriders intolerable.  He removed his people much farther north to the fork where the sources of the Anduin joined, neighboring Greenwood’s most pristine region.  Hospitable tributes were exchanged and Thranduil suspected they would be amiable neighbors.  In any case, he appreciated having allies to reinforce his northwestern border.


All too soon, word of yet another disaster reached them as small armies of displaced Dwarves wandered through the north on their way toward Erebor.  They did not condescend to explain their circumstances to Thranduil, but he heard later from Frumgar that all Khazad-dûm had been emptied and abandoned.  Frumgar seemed to be at a loss to accurately explain what had become of the place, but the fragmented description of “Durin’s Bane” left Thranduil and his lords with little doubt that the insatiable miners had stirred a Balrog, of all unbelievable things.  They agreed among themselves that it would be best not spoken of again within their own realm if it did not choose to make itself known.  With any luck, it would retreat into whatever hole it had occupied since the War of Wrath and sleep for another age. 


The air outside seemed calm enough for the moment, but with barbarians flooding in from the east, the realms of the Númenoreans failing, the Nazgûl unaccounted for, and now a Balrog awake in the mountains, Thranduil could not help feeling the condition of Middle-earth was gradually deteriorating toward a cataclysm of some kind.


“I feel that something is brewing,” he said to Galadhmir as they rode together through the northern woods.  “But I cannot make out what it is.”


“Would it matter?” Galadhmir asked.  “Whatever great evils are at work in the world will carry on with little notice of us.  Our purpose remains the same regardless.”


“True enough,” Thranduil granted, “but I would appreciate some advance warning all the same.”


The northern woods remained the most beautiful in the forest, a tranquil remnant of Greenwood’s past glory.  It did Thranduil a great deal of good to visit from time to time.  The small city Galadhmir had built for himself there was set into the branches of the trees in the old carefree style.  It was like a living memory of better times, a pleasant dream one could return to time and time again. 


As they arrived back at the city, they found Gwaelas waiting to intercept them.  “A messenger has come from Lórinand, my lords,” he said.  “He has been properly accommodated.”


Thranduil dismounted and accepted the pale letter, not knowing whether to hope for good news or not.  Word seldom came from Amroth anymore.  “Thank you, Gwaelas.  See that the grooms receive the horses.”


He strode away toward a copse of trees and sat on a low branch, turning the letter over in his hand and observing the carefully written address.  “It is not from Amroth,” he observed, breaking the seal, “but from Celeborn.”


“It has certainly been a long count of years since we heard of him,” Galadhmir said.  “Where has he been spending his time?”


As Thranduil read through the letter he felt his heart sink.  He read it again to be certain of the particulars.  As was his wont, Celeborn restricted himself to the brutal facts of the matter and did not indulge in a great deal of emotional effusion.  Thranduil was left to imagine his cousin’s unspoken distress, Galadriel’s grief, and the anguish of an entire kingdom.  “He and Galadriel have returned to Lórinand,” he said heavily, handing the letter to Galadhmir, “because Amroth is dead.”


The whole sad tale was there.  After surviving so many battles, it seemed slightly absurd that Amroth would drown while attempting to take ship into the West with his betrothed.  It seemed as though there was some quiet curse on the last generations; Legolas was adamant in his refusal to consider another marriage, Elrond’s sons were too restless to consider taking brides, and now Amroth’s love had ended in tragedy.  He had not wanted to believe he would see the fading of their kindred so soon.


Galadhmir sighed and returned the letter.  “This world can be a very unforgiving place,” he said simply, perhaps for lack of anything else to say, “as we seem to have daily proof.”


Thranduil did not answer.  It certainly did nothing to allay his fears that the times were darkening, but there was nothing he could do about the world beyond his borders.  As much as it grieved him, it was all beyond his power.  It was all he could do to hold the domain he had been given.  He suspected even that task would soon become more arduous. 


At least Amroth was beyond all those cares now.  The rest of them would be obliged to stand and face the storm.



Chapter 31 ~ Lifting the Shadow







Harthamaur stoked the flames beneath the great stone cistern with his rake, keeping them from blazing up too high or ebbing too low.  It was hot work, but certainly well-compensated and not without some prestige.  His apprentice appeared behind him bearing another load of wood.


“Mind the fire,” Harthamaur said, giving him the rake.  He turned and climbed the ladder on the far side, mindful of the hot stone, and stirred the waters with his hand.  Much hotter than blood warmth but not yet scalding.  Perfect. 


He descended to find his apprentice throwing a very liberal amount of wood on the flames.  “Not so much!” he complained, seizing the rake and scraping some out again in a shower of sparks.  “Burn him, and it will be both our heads.” 


He opened the sluice to allow some of the prepared water to flow into the bath chamber beyond the wall, then instructed his apprentice to open the one on the opposite side to admit more cold water from the river into the cistern.  If they did their job properly the temperature of the bath would remain effectively constant.  Failure to do so would result in a gentle complaint from the other side of the wall in the form of a ringing bell indicating a desire for more heat or less.  Harthamaur prided himself on how seldom it rang on his watch.


With any luck, he would train this hopeful young bathmaster to be equally exacting.





 



Thranduil sat submerged up to his chin in his subterranean bath, letting the hot water soothe some of the stiffness out of his shoulder.  It was still mending after being badly wrenched out of place in the last skirmish at the border.  He suspected he had torn something that really ought never be torn, but he was gradually regaining the use of it.  Meanwhile, lest any of their valuable time be wasted, Linhir had come down to give him the bulletins of the day.


“Our overtures to Erebor have only just been returned,” he was saying, looking over his notes.  “They were decidedly cool, but not quite impolite.”


“Fair enough,” Thranduil said dryly, “considering our tone was much the same.”  The King Under the Mountain had only just taken up residence at Erebor sixty years before, elevating that colony as the new seat of the entire Dwarvish realm in the north.  Without neglecting the formal niceties between kings, Thranduil was determined to keep official correspondence between their two realms to a minimum to avoid any unnecessary misunderstandings or conflicts.  Fortunately, the Dwarves seemed to be of the same mind.  “Say on.”


“King Fram of the Éothéod died some time ago, and his heirs have not deigned to inform us,” Linhir continued. 


“Hmm,” Thranduil grunted.  “We must remind them that we continue to take an interest in our neighbors.  How did he meet his end?”


“It seems he was quite a formidable Man.  He hunted and slew the dragon Scatha in the mountains and thereby won the beast’s hoard.  The Dwarves, however, contested his possession of the treasure, advancing what they considered to be their prior claim.”


Of course, they did.  Grasping vultures.


“Fram denied them and sent instead the dragon’s teeth, naming them rarer jewels than any others in their treasuries.”


Now Thranduil laughed heartily.  “A formidable Man indeed!” he agreed.  Then he remembered that Fram was dead and his face fell.  “Do not say that they killed him.”


Linhir shrugged grimly.  “A large delegation of Dwarves came to contest Fram’s right to the treasure, words were exchanged which led to blows, and he and many others were slain.”


Thranduil frowned, so deeply disgusted that words failed him.  He had not thought it possible that he could think any less of Dwarves.  They were a thick-headed, coldblooded, rapacious people who would steal anything they could not claim, content to become murderers in the attempt.  It was repugnantly similar to the fate of King Thingol.  “Had I known of this ten years ago, I may have reconsidered my words to Thráin,” he said icily.


“Needless to say, relations between the Dwarves and the Éothéod remain hostile.  The Horsemen have not declared open war, but they have banned all Dwarves within their territory on pain of death.”  Linhir paused as he consulted his notes again.  “The latest report from the south is that Mirkwood continues to darken, that the spiders have become more numerous, and that the shadow is slowly but steadily encroaching north.”


Thranduil nodded.  He had already surmised as much, but it was important to have confirmation nonetheless.  Dol Guldur had been oppressing him mercilessly of late, which was partly why it was taking so long to heal himself.  It was that passive but malevolent pressure on his mind that was so draining.  It waxed and waned at times depending on where the dark lord chose to direct his attention, but it rarely relented completely.


There was a discreet disturbance at the entrance of the chamber, and the Guardsman on duty approached to relay a message to Lord Linhir, who seemed intrigued.  He closed his book.  “Mithrandir has come,” he said with a shadow of a familiar cheeky smile of years long gone.  “Shall I show him in, or would you have him wait?”


Thranduil replied with a withering glare in similar good humor.  “Let him wait,” he said.  “I have little enough privacy where that wizard is concerned.”


“Very well.  I shall leave you to make yourself decent.”


Thranduil lingered pensively in the steaming water for a while.  Mithrandir’s arrival always betokened some development of interest, but under the circumstances he was not certain whether to expect good news or bad.  The latter possibility left him tempted to hide there indefinitely.  But, of course, he could not. 


When he finally mustered the will to climb out Gwaelas was ready to attend him, quietly helping him dress, ever mindful of his injury, as constant as a shadow.  It was a very different sort of intimacy than that of a spouse, different even than the friendship he shared with his peers, but as steadfast as any of them.  “Who ever looks after you, Gwaelas?” he asked.  “You really should find yourself a wife.”


“Oh, my lord,” Gwaelas laughed, handing him a ready cup of wine, “I would never have the time.”


Steeling himself for whatever may be awaiting him, Thranduil finally emerged from the bath chamber and went in search of his guest.  He had not far to go, as Mithrandir was waiting in the corridor to pounce upon him.


“Well met again, my lord,” the wizard said with a bow before falling into step beside him.  “I am pleased to see you are well.  I bring word of some developments of which I thought you should be made aware.  Is there somewhere we may speak privately?”


Thranduil stopped abruptly in the passage and snapped his fingers at his Guardsmen who obediently fell back out of earshot.  “Say on,” he said.  “Few frequent this place.”


The whisper of a scowl darkened Mithrandir’s features as though he had expected a bit more ceremony, but it passed.  “Very well.  The Wise have been meeting in council and have become quite concerned about the growing power and influence of Dol Guldur.  Many now fear that the Necromancer may be none other than Sauron himself taking shape again.”


Thranduil blinked, torn between triumph and indignation.  “Indeed?” he said at last, his voice thick with irony.  “How shocking.”


Now the scowl returned.  “There is no need to be petulant, Oropherion,” Mithrandir quipped.  “If you will recall, I was willing to entertain your suspicions from the beginning, but the dark powers of this world may reveal themselves to one and hide from another.  It is precisely for that reason that I have been sent, to confront him at Dol Guldur and discover his identity if I can.”


“Well, I certainly wish you every success in that endeavor,” Thranduil said, softening a bit.  “It is a task beyond any of us here, though I would offer whatever assistance you may require.”


“I shall require little enough,” Mithrandir assured him.  “I suspect you are quite preoccupied in these darkening days.  A night of your hospitality, some provisions, and perhaps a fresh horse.  I trust that is not too much to ask?”


“Done,” Thranduil agreed readily.  “You may have your pick of the stables.”


Mithrandir departed the next morning as abruptly as he had come.  Thranduil suspected he never kept still for long.  In any case, the wizard had been quite right about the state of Thranduil’s own affairs.  He scarcely had time to give the solitary quest to Dol Guldur another thought.


The Necromancer was bearing down with considerable force, harrying them now by many different means at once.  Pleas for assistance came to Thranduil from the Woodmen necessitating aggressive rides through the forest to reestablish order, hunting and expelling bandits, culling beasts, all while trying to hold his borders against the insidious encroachment of the shadow of Mirkwood.  Even the Nazgûl had been reported terrorizing the population.  The King’s presence was invaluable, especially in securing the more numinous defenses of his dominion in the region, but the physical and mental demands of the endeavor denied him any opportunity to sleep.  He wore out several horses in a row before he was able to dismount long enough to have a decent meal.  He was unable to do much actual fighting due to his lingering injury which did end up worse through premature exertion.  If only he had time to sleep he might finally be able to mend it, but it seemed he was needed everywhere.  He felt his temper growing shorter by the day.


After a fortnight on campaign, they returned to the caverns for a brief respite.  Thranduil found himself presiding over an informal supper with Legolas and Galadhmir, trying valiantly to follow their conversation.  The Necromancer was hounding him again, an unwanted presence apparently intent upon driving him mad.  The weight of it was actually becoming painful.  Thranduil glanced at the wine in the decanter, considering deliberately silencing the fiend by drinking himself insensible.  He had already made a good start.


“Father?”  Legolas was looking at him with obvious concern.  “Perhaps you should rest.”


Thranduil sighed and shook his head.  “Later,” he promised.  He could not sleep now, however badly he wanted to.  To attempt it before he had shaken off this invisible assault would be to leave himself vulnerable to a world of torment.


“No, Thranduil, he is right,” Galadhmir insisted.  “You have barely eaten and you look dreadful.  Go lie down.”


Thranduil leveled what must have been a very haggard glare at him.  “Later,” he insisted.


He was tired.  He did not want a petty duel of wills with Dol Guldur just now, but there seemed to be no avoiding it.  Holding it back required ever greater effort.  Suddenly the malicious pressure both strengthened and sharpened as though sensing his weakness, causing him to grimace.  He slammed his fist on the table as the sickly chill slipped past his defenses and pierced the deep places of his mind. 


Then, just as suddenly, it vanished.  It was not just lessened, but gone as if it had never been.


Both Legolas and Galadhmir were looking at him as though each were on the point of calling the guards, but Thranduil simply straightened in his chair, bemused, trying to make sense of what he was feeling.  He felt that an oppressive weight had been lifted, an incessant noise had been silenced, that he was no longer obliged to shield his every thought.  The relief was indescribable.  It was then that he remembered Mithrandir and his mysterious errand.  Clearly something quite remarkable had transpired.  He would be very interested to know the details.


In the meantime, he gathered himself and took up his fork again.  “If and when Mithrandir returns,” he said, “do not let him slip away unrewarded.  I suspect we may find that we all owe him an extraordinary debt of gratitude.”

 



 



Mithrandir did eventually return the following month, quietly, without fanfare or ceremony.  Thranduil would happily have provided both, but he managed to restrain his enthusiasm and wait for the wizard to approach him.  They met atop the great hill as Thranduil was observing the distant horizon. 


“As you may have already ascertained, my lord,” the wizard said with a warm smile, leaning on his staff, “I can report some success in my endeavor.”


“I did suspect as much,” Thranduil confirmed.  A gentle breeze broke upon them from the south, clean and untainted.  “What sort of battle did he give you?”


“There was no battle,” Mithrandir said.  “I observed his stronghold for many days, but when I finally challenged him, the Necromancer fled without resistance.  I had the distinct impression that I caught him unawares.  It seems his will was entirely trained elsewhere at the time.”


Thranduil felt the wizard’s keen eyes upon him.  He was not eager to share his own experiences, though Mithrandir had probably already surmised quite enough.  “Were you able to discover his identity before he fled?” he asked.


“Alas, I was not.  I imagine it was fear of discovery that forced him to retreat so hastily.  But,” he concluded with a gentle smile, “whatever his name, he is gone and Dol Guldur is stripped of its power.  I cannot say how long it will last, but I am pleased that the good people of Mirkwood will again enjoy some peace.  I dare say they have earned it, you certainly not least of all.”


“We are most sincerely grateful for whatever you did,” Thranduil admitted, dropping his guarded manner.  “I have breathed more freely these past weeks than in all the last thousand years.”  He might well have wept for gratitude had his pride allowed it.  “We had all but despaired of any assistance.”


“No good done is ever completely unappreciated, my lord,” the wizard assured him, “little though it may seem to be noticed.  Providence has at last seen fit to succor you in your need, so use the time wisely.  Rest, recover your strength, and be at peace while you may.”




 Chapter 32 ~ A Watchful Peace




Beyond all hope, it seemed Mithrandir had indeed crippled the power of Dol Guldur.  The people of Mirkwood passed the first year of the peace cautiously, hardly daring to believe it would not all come to ruin in the end.  The King maintained the severe watch on his borders and searched endlessly for any sign of the Necromancer’s return, but the seasons passed without incident.  One quiet year became two, two became six, six became a dozen, and slowly they were finally able to believe the tide had truly turned.


The shadow gradually weakened, fading southwards, leaving the wood to flourish as it once had.  Thranduil was keen to reclaim the forfeited territory, and within a decade they had successfully retaken the mountains.  The spiders and other foul beasts retreated with the shadow or were slain.


Thranduil felt his own strength returning day by day.  He realized he had forgotten what it was like to wake refreshed, to be invigorated rather than exhausted by the progress of the day.  It made the arduous work of cleansing the southern regions a much less daunting prospect.


The kingdom began thriving again in more ways than one.  The population steadily increased after a long and weary stagnation, and new settlements were built in the reclaimed territories to accommodate growing families.  Children seemed to be everywhere, a fresh generation of bright and eager faces.  A blissful century passed as all the wrongs of the world seemed to be righting themselves.


Lord Elrond came from Imladris with his noble family to visit King Thranduil and witness the glad change for himself.  They passed a very enjoyable year in Greenwood, as they had begun calling it again, reacquainting themselves at a leisurely and carefree pace which circumstances had not often allowed before.  Mutual paternal whimsy inspired Thranduil and Elrond to throw Legolas and Lady Arwen together at every opportunity in the hope that their acquaintance might blossom into something more substantial.  But, alas, it all came to nothing as they could not be persuaded to be more than good friends.


Another century passed during which the years were hardly marked.  The shadow of Mirkwood continued to lift, and very little noteworthy news came from beyond their borders to trouble them.  They did hear that the Dwarvish king had abandoned Erebor to rejoin the larger portion of Durin’s Folk in Ered Mithrin despite the rumor of dragons.


After yet another quiet century, Thranduil found himself strangely listless.  He was wonderfully content, but idle.  There was no war left to fight, no lurking enemy to oppose.  It seemed they had truly outlasted Dol Guldur, and that was an enormously satisfying thought even though it had not been any effort of his which had finally secured the wood.  His happiness was marred only by the underlying awareness that even now he was living only half a life, deprived of his Queen.  He contemplated that deprivation as he and Galadhmir sheltered with their horses beneath a roadside pavilion, awaiting the lessening of a gorgeous summer thunderstorm.


“You seem very thoughtful today,” Galadhmir prodded him.  “What is distracting you now?”


“I am not distracted,” Thranduil protested, admiring the torrential rain.  “I was merely reflecting on all the good fortune we have enjoyed these last years.”


“There was a time when I would not have believed it possible,” Galadhmir said, joining him in the sentiment, “but now the wood is clean, the reconquest complete, and new generations are blooming like wildflowers.  I know when we pledged to outlast the Necromancer we all suspected we would die trying, but it seems our work is done.”


 “Yes,” Thranduil agreed wistfully.  “Perhaps it is.”


Galadhmir’s smile abruptly vanished.  “Oh, come now, I did not mean it like that.”


“But I did,” Thranduil assured him.  “It does not have to be an entirely melancholy thought.  As you say, the wood is thriving.  Perhaps after all these years my work is done.  Perhaps I have finally served my purpose.  Perhaps,” he said, carefully articulating the possibility for the first time, “I may at last consider myself free to seek my peace in the West.”


Galadhmir seemed shocked to hear him say it.  “What has brought this on?” he demanded.


“It was nothing extraordinary,” Thranduil insisted, “and truly I have no desire to leave, but I can never be whole here.  I miss her, Galadh.  This place was our paradise, and without her I cannot enjoy it as I once did.”


Galadhmir sighed.  “No, I suppose not,” he agreed.  “Naturally, I and many others would prefer that you stay, but I can understand why you might wish to go.  Nothing this side of the Sea can ever be completely restored, can it?”


“Sadly, no, though I dare say we have made a very good effort.”


“It will be strange for the rest of us.  I have never imagined this place without you.”  Galadhmir paused and sobered again.  “Have you told Legolas?”


“I do not want to burden him with the possibility until I know my own mind,” Thranduil admitted.  “I find myself reluctant to make such a final decision.”


Galadhmir nodded.  “Go where you will and know the blessing of all Greenwood goes with you.  I trust Legolas will prove a worthy successor.” 


“No doubt,” Thranduil agreed with a bittersweet smile, “although I am sure his nature is better suited to other things.  Will you stay to guide him?”


“Of course, I will,” Galadhmir assured him.


 



When they had returned to the palace, Thranduil retired quietly to his chambers.  The place had been his sanctuary for so long that it seemed strange to imagine leaving it forever, but like so many other things, its best memories and associations were irretrievably in the past.  The Queen’s furniture remained as she had left it, faithfully cleaned and dusted through the centuries with special care taken to replace her belongings exactly as they had been left.  He would not suffer any piece of it to be removed.  It still looked as though she might return at any moment, but he knew she never would.  He must go to her.   


He opened her jewel box and drew out the emerald pendant he had first given her before either of them had crossed the mountains, and then closed it in his fist, torn between his greatest loves in life.  The Necromancer had ultimately failed to uproot him, and now he must perform the painful task himself.  He did not want to leave Greenwood, the kingdom his family had built and the happiest home they had ever known.  He did not want to leave the Galennath and he especially did not want to leave Legolas.  But he did not want to live alone anymore.  He had denied himself for a very long time. 


Thranduil went to bed that night feeling strangely content with the idea now that he had seriously considered it.  He had fulfilled the task she had given him.  After nearly four hundred years of peace, Greenwood was as vibrant as it ever had been, the evils of Mirkwood little more than a memory.  He would not be ready to leave tomorrow, or even that year, but he would be soon.  He had seen many good things come to an end during his lifetime and eventually he had learned that to wallow in regret brought nothing but misery.  He had been miserable quite long enough.  He would look ahead rather than behind, as his father had taught him to do, and face the changing world with expectation rather than grief. 


He fell asleep with her necklace still clutched in his hand, dreaming of going home to places he could still only imagine.



Chapter 33 ~ In the Bleak Midwinter




Although the Galennath had not forgotten the martial lifestyle of Mirkwood, the restoration of peace allowed them ample opportunity to indulge the merrier side of their nature.  Preparations were well underway for a Midwinter festival to shame all others.  The entire wood had already been blasted by early blizzards and lay blanketed in snow, but the summer had been good and no one would go hungry that year.


In honor of the season, Thranduil had taken it upon himself to personally visit each and every village in his care, especially the newest and most distant ones.  He came in the full festal dress of a warrior king accompanied by a magnificent entourage of lords and celebrated soldiers.  He wanted to meet his people where they lived, to hear their concerns and see their children.  It was proving a very enjoyable duty.


“Where are we bound today?” he asked as they mounted their horses and set out again on another crisp winter’s morning.


“To Beraid Lebethryn,” Legolas said as he rode beside him.  “It and Caras Hedryn are the southernmost settlements at present.  Afterwards we will be returning by the northwest road.”


The ride itself was a festive affair.  Stealth was not their object this time, and there was much singing and glad conversation while the hounds bounded back and forth, all accompanied by the tinkling music of the little silver bells adorning the noblest horses.  The animals of the forest seemed to recognize their peaceful intent and did not flee from them.  Flitting winter birds, leaping stags, hare, ermine, and even a secretive lynx all paused to greet the lords of the wood as they passed.


Late that afternoon, just as the sun was beginning to fade into early evening, they arrived at Beraid Lebethryn.  The towering trees which had given the place its name stood around the village like sentinels, and a small guardhouse had been built into each one.  Between them grew a thick hedgerow of holly bushes into which gates had been cut at intervals.  The guards in the treetops sounded their horns to announce the King’s arrival, eliciting an enthusiastic cheer from inside the enclosure.  The crowd of eager onlookers swung wide the northern gate and spilled out to welcome them.


“My lord!” said one who appeared to be vested with local authority.  “You do our humble home more honor than I fear it will bear!  I am Amathon, your governor here, and it is my very great pleasure to welcome you to Beraid Lebethryn.”


Thranduil recognized the name.  He had approved Amathon’s appointment to the post based on several good reports but had not yet met him in person.  He had many more regional governors now than he once had.  “It will please me to accept your welcome, Master Amathon,” he said, “especially as I see you are not alone in offering it.”


No fewer than nine children of similar age had separated from the crowd and gathered eagerly around the governor, a remarkable number to see in one place.  They were all staring wide-eyed at him, particularly the youngest who had been maneuvered to the front.  She was clutching a beribboned basket in her little hands, and there fell a slightly awkward silence as they waited for her to deliver what must have been a prepared greeting, but the sight of the King astride his great horse seemed to have momentarily stolen her words.  At last she was prodded by the boy behind her and recovered herself.  “We, too, welcome you to Beraid Lebethryn, my lord,” she said as grandly as she could manage.  “May it ever be your home as much as it is ours.”  She thrust the basket up at him, which—judging by the obvious consternation of her peers—was not how the presentation had been rehearsed. 


Dorthaer stepped out of the ranks and gracefully accepted the gift on the King’s behalf, revealing it to be a prickly crown of holly branches and berries.  Thranduil was charmed by it immediately and motioned for Dorthaer to pass it to him.  He removed his crown of woven fir boughs and replaced it with the children’s offering, no doubt crafted from the living walls of their home. 


“Such a gracious invitation cannot be refused,” Thranduil said with a smile, “but if this is to be our home tonight, we must not linger outside.”  He nudged his horse forward and ceremoniously dropped a rein for her.  “Lead us in, dearheart.”


Celebrated on all sides with song and laughter, they were led into the heart of the village where a royal feast had been prepared in the great hall.  Bathed in the golden light of countless lanterns, festooned with evergreen boughs and warmed by the heat of several ovens, it was as merry a place as ever could be, replete with hearty woodland fare, good company, and spirited entertainments. 


Thranduil was thoroughly enjoying himself.  Times like these made him extremely reluctant to leave Greenwood, when it seemed he was exactly where he belonged and all things were as they should be.  Or, rather, almost all things.  He had not changed his mind about going to seek Lindóriel in Valinor, but he had already lingered several years longer than he thought he would have.  It was no easy task to leave after devoting so much of his life to that place and its people.  He had by no means forgotten his history, but it had been a very long time since he had felt like a Mithrin outcast from Beleriand.  The consequences of his office had bound him more intimately to Greenwood than to any other place he had ever known, and there was no longer any distinction between himself and the Galennath.  There was still a part of him which could never imagine leaving them.


The children who had met them at the gate were now gathered at the center of the hall enthusiastically performing a ballad they had composed for the occasion.  It was the traditional sort featuring an oft-told tale, the flight of the Necromancer and the restoration of Greenwood.  Those events must have seemed very distant to such young minds, blessed to have been born into the peaceful years.  Their innocence was endearing.


Thranduil glanced aside at Legolas, seated on his right.  His son had also been born in times of peace, yet he had been obliged to exchange his innocence for hard-won experience, forged by the adversities of Mirkwood into a seasoned warrior who knew hardship and yet retained his resilience.  He had been strengthened rather than discouraged, and the beginnings of that ageless wisdom expected of all great Elven lords was growing in his eyes.  If it was to be Legolas’ fate to wear the crown of Greenwood in his turn, Thranduil had no doubt he would prove equal the task. 


There were dancers and acrobats, choirs and musicians to entertain the gathered company until the feast ended.  Then the tables were removed and set against the far walls, opening a wide space for the dancing and merriment to continue long into the night.  Thranduil, however, remained in his elaborately decorated throne to receive those who were gathering in a rapidly lengthening queue to speak with him.  He could only spare a few moments for each, but he did try to give them the courtesy of his undivided attention.  He met parents with their children, young soldiers who were just beginning their service in that region, a few old acquaintances who had resettled on the realm’s frontier, veterans of the darker years who had begun new lives there, some who needed reassurance that the King remained well-informed of what passed there so far from his seat in the north, and many others who simply wished to express their appreciation and loyalty.


Hours later, when the ceremonies were concluded and the music had calmed, Thranduil took the governor outside to speak with him privately.  It was a bitterly cold night, and perfectly formed snowflakes were gently swirling through the air.  All was quiet, crisp and clean, exactly the refreshing contrast one wanted before retiring to a warm bed. 


“We have been remiss in not meeting with you sooner, Amathon,” Thranduil said.  He saw that Legolas had noticed them leaving, and he beckoned to him.  “I have heard only good reports of you and of Beraid Lebethryn, and I see the praise was well-deserved.”


“I dare then to hope this honor will be soon repeated, my lord,” Amathon ventured with a gratified smile.  “My lord the prince has looked in on us from time to time while about his duties,” he said, nodding at Legolas, “but we have all been quite eager to entertain the King at last.”


“You have managed that task remarkably well,” Thranduil assured him.  “I do intend to spend a larger portion of my time in the south in the coming year to see our borders strengthened.  It has been decided that we will be content with the reconquest of the wood as it stands lest we overextend ourselves.  I trust you and your neighbors in Caras Hedryn are prepared to spearhead the southern defense.”


“We are, my lord,” Amathon confirmed, “although I suppose that is easily said when there are no enemies at the gates.  But we who remember Mirkwood have not forgotten how to fight, and we do our utmost to teach the younger generations.”


“We have occasionally borrowed some of their young archers while on our patrols,” Legolas said.  “The standards are high, and their deficiencies amount to no more than a lack of experience.”


“In these days, I consider a lack of that sort of experience to be a blessing rather than a deficiency,” Thranduil decided.  “I would be glad to see your young soldiers in their ranks before we take our leave in the morning.”


The military instinct in Amathon made him straighten briskly where he stood.  “They will be turned out at first light, my lord,” he promised.


Thranduil nodded approvingly.  The long age of Mirkwood had ingrained that military instinct so deeply in the Galennath that it seemed to have become permanently fixed in their nature, but the endless drills and patrols which had been so vital centuries ago had now assumed an air of traditional pageantry.  He knew perfectly well that evil was never conquered forever and that it would be folly to forget their old cautious habits, but he was content to enjoy the gallant superfluity of it all while it lasted.


But suddenly a terrible chill pierced the depths of his heart without warning, freezing the breath in his chest.  It was the chill of hatred, of ruin, and of death.  He recognized that malicious touch at once, and the immediate torrent of horror and dread and despair was so violent that he doubled over and vomited into the snow.


“Ai, Belain!” Legolas gasped, recoiling with Amathon before they both recovered themselves.  “My lord, are you unwell?  What is wrong?”


Thranduil said nothing, bracing himself against the railing lest his hands shake.  He could not bring himself to say what he knew to be true.  The peace was broken, their reprieve had ended.  So many plans and dreams and expectations were destroyed in that bleak moment because now everything had changed.


Desperate horn calls from the south came to them on the wind, and then the same dreadful understanding seemed to strike both Legolas and Amathon.  “Caras Hedryn!”


Thranduil recovered himself, cursing Gorthaur bitterly in his heart.  As before, there was no time to mourn the future they had expected to enjoy.  There was time only to meet the challenge thrust upon them.  “Sound the alarm and turn out your men at once,” he commanded Amathon.  “Legolas, see our party mounted and bring me my horse.  We ride for Caras Hedryn immediately!”


In a few moments the entire village was seething with frantic activity bordering on panic.  Thranduil rode into the courtyard and merged the soldiers of his entourage with the horsemen who had mustered there, quickly organized them into coherent ranks and led them out at a gallop ahead of the infantry. 


They sped along the path in a churning flurry of disturbed snow.  Thranduil was by no means dressed for battle and was not even wearing his sword, but thankfully it was ceremoniously strapped to his saddle.  He feared it may already be too late to avert disaster, but he would not abandon his people to the mercies of Gorthaur’s servants if it lay within his power to do otherwise.  He urged them to still greater speed, plunging headlong into the dark. 


As he had feared, Caras Hedryn was in flames when they arrived, but their mad charge through the burning husk of the village was enough to repulse the last of Dol Guldur’s raiders, both Men and Orcs.  There was a great deal of confusion as they rode down and killed the few who failed to make good their escape. 


“Legolas!”  Thranduil called, drawing up his horse amid the ruin.  “Take the first three ranks and pursue them to the death, but go no farther than our border.”


“Yes, my lord!”  Legolas gave a shrill whistle to command the attention of their riders, summoned the first three ranks as ordered and led them south into the night.


As the wild hoofbeats faded into the snowy darkness, the rest of them were left in a horrible calm with the crackling of the fires, the cries of the wounded, and the weeping of the survivors.  Thranduil felt sick again as the intensity of the moment faded.  He rode slowly through the wreck with a heavy heart as Commander Dorthaer, with his usual grim composure, took charge of the recovery efforts. 


Snow was thrown onto the flames wherever it seemed it would do some good.  The bodies of the slain Galennath were carefully gathered and laid in rows while the corpses of the raiders were thrown into piles.  The wounded were given whatever care could be offered at that moment.  The footsoldiers from Beraid Lebethryn would arrive before long, and they would be able to help bear them away. 


There had clearly been no warning before the attack.  Thranduil reflected that the peace had brought some measure of fatal complacency with it, as peace always did.  The smell of smoke and blood, the cold, the snow, and even his own incongruously festive clothing evoked the very old but still very raw memories of the ruin of Menegroth.  He knew several of his own people were enduring that same desolation now, and his heart ached for them.  The one important difference was that their king was not dead, and he would see that they were not left desolate for long.


As he continued to ride through the destruction, some movement caught Thranduil’s eye in a far corner beside the western wall.  It was a wounded Elf crawling painfully out of her house in search of help.  He quickly dismounted and knelt beside her to assess her injuries.  “Be still,” he said gently, fearing she might injure herself further.  “Be still.”


Her throat had been partially cut and she could not speak, but her eyes implored him to help her.  Yet even as Thranduil began opening her tunic to reveal her wounds he could see she was already beyond all help.  She had been brutally stabbed many times, her feet had been cut off, and her breath was failing.  Tragically, she had clearly been expecting a child very soon.  The bodies of several Orcs testified to the bravery with which she and her husband had defended their home, but it had not been enough to save them.


She died a moment later, her agony ended.  It was deeply saddening, and Thranduil had to pause a moment to steady himself.  The senseless cruelty of it was hard to bear.  Worse was the irrational conviction that it was somehow his fault.  These people were his responsibility and they had trusted him, yet he had been powerless to protect this young family. 


“I am truly sorry,” he whispered, laying her lifeless hand upon her chest. 


Then the unborn child moved.


Thranduil hissed sharply, leapt up and retrieved a knife from his saddle.  He hardly knew what he was doing, but there was no time for self-doubt, and he had certainly bred enough animals to know his way around a newborn.  Carefully but very quickly he cut through skin and muscle until he reached the womb.  It opened with a gush of fluid, and he reached inside and scooped out the child, brusquely wiping its face clean in a desperate attempt to help it draw breath.  He was rewarded with a pitiful but miraculous cry which grew only stronger as he finished separating the infant from its mother.


It was a daughter, and he quickly wrapped her in his cloak against the cold.  Her cries struck a startling contrast amid the destruction of the home she had never known, hope mingled with grief, life sprung unexpectedly from death, a bright point which shone indomitably in Mirkwood’s shadow.  In many ways she perfectly embodied the spirit of the Galennath and their wood.  It was only fitting she should bear a name which honored that.


“Peace, child,” he said, holding her close and shielding her from the wind.  “Peace, Tauriel.”


 



In the wake of the attack, it was decided that Caras Hedryn would be abandoned and not rebuilt.  The survivors retreated to Beraid Lebethryn until the fate of all the southern villages would be determined.  Remembering how heavy the hand of Dol Guldur had been in the past, Thranduil was not sanguine about their ability to defend the far-flung borders as they had established during the peace.  It was bitterly disappointing, but such were the realities of war.  Moreover, it seemed to Thranduil that the Necromancer had likewise been refreshed during his long absence, his malice stronger and his shadow darker.  He was not inclined to doom their cause by overestimating his own abilities in the face of that.  The army was sent to fortify the border, but they were strictly instructed to fall back and protect the retreat of their people if the need arose rather than waste themselves in an insupportable battle.


The King returned to the north after satisfying himself that the southern regions were secure in Lord Anárion’s capable hands.  He took the infant Tauriel with him.  She had been fostered and cared for in Beraid Lebethryn, but all her family had been killed and Thranduil found he was unwilling to be parted from her.  She had keenly reminded him of Legolas’ birth, and he certainly had no wish to leave her in the south to possibly suffer the same fate as her parents.  Many families with young children had already decided to move farther north before the evils of Mirkwood could overtake them. 


Back in the palatial caverns, the young royal ward was afforded the luxuries of a princess in all but name.  Thranduil was becoming more attached to her than he had intended to become, but he was not prepared to name her one of his own heirs on the same footing as Legolas, not least of all because he did not intend to overshadow the legacy of the parents who had died defending her.  He considered himself no more than her guardian and benefactor even if he was behaving more like a father at present.  Master Noruvion and his wife had consented to adopt her, yet Thranduil looked in on her many times each day and often shared in her care, wearing her wrapped against his chest while he conducted his affairs.  He knew it was unnecessary, but it touched something deep inside him which needed the comfort.


Legolas found them together when at last he returned from the south.  There was a deep uneasiness in his eyes, but it was briefly hidden by a smile.  “She is a pretty thing,” he said, coming nearer to stroke her downy hair, “with an enviable lust for life.”


“Let us hope we all prove equally resolute,” Thranduil said.  “I gather you bring me no good news.”


“Indeed not,” Legolas confessed.  “We are rapidly losing the entire southern region.  The darkness is especially virulent and is advancing by the day.  Our poor efforts to hold the border ourselves have proven futile.  We suspect only your continued presence there would be strong enough to impede the spread.”


“Alas, I cannot be in all places at once,” Thranduil sighed, confronted with his limitations yet again.  It was always galling to admit defeat, but it would be foolish to compound the damage with denial.  “Give the order,” he said.  “Withdraw all our people in the south and settle them north of the mountains.  We will make our stand there.”


Despite the gravity of his report, Legolas seemed momentarily taken aback.  They would be abandoning fully half of their territory without a fight.  It was a stunning concession. 


“Trust me,” Thranduil said, “we must not choke ourselves biting off more than we can manage.  We will withdraw in order to withstand the long siege.”  He smiled ruefully.  “I suppose I will have a great deal of work to do for many years hence.  Truth be told, I had been contemplating leaving the realm to you and taking my leave of Middle-earth.”


Legolas did seem initially surprised, but then both sympathetic and relieved.  “Please do nothing of the kind, my lord,” he said.  “She is not the only one who feels safer with you.”


Tauriel whimpered and grunted in her sleep, then settled herself against his chest.  Once again, she was a stark reminder of everything that was worth defending in Greenwood.  Leaving her and all the rest of their people to face the Necromancer alone would be unconscionable. 


It seemed he was not fated to relinquish the crown just yet.  The more Gorthaur tried to wrest it from him, the more determined he was to hold it.  The Dark Lord had taunted him with his family’s unfortunate history of flight, but here he would stand to the death if need be.  He would not be moved, whatever the oppression.  He would not be intimidated, whatever the threat.  He would not be broken, whatever the grief.


His Queen would expect no less.




Chapter 34 ~ Counsel




The shadow of Mirkwood rolled over Greenwood remarkably quickly.  Within a few years four centuries of restoration had been ruined, tens of thousands of trees meticulously cleansed were sickened again, and the wide halls and aisles of Thranduil’s realm became once again the haunt of dark and unnatural beasts.  Thranduil turned those few years to best advantage, strengthening the conservative borders he had chosen so thoroughly that the shadow’s seemingly inexorable advance was abruptly halted at the mountains.  Even so, it was not a border that was easily held against the fury of Dol Guldur.  Consequently, the King was not an infrequent visitor to the healers’ chambers.


Thranduil reported there again after breakfast as instructed to have his most recent dressings changed.  He had caught a Warg’s bite on his forearm and, although his armor had foiled the worst damage, he had several nasty punctures in need of care.  Noruvion was prepared for him and set about his work at once, removing the bandage and rinsing the wounds in a pale liquid which had a robust floral scent.


“I see nothing which concerns me,” Noruvion said after some careful examination, gently dabbing the skin dry.  “Another day and there will be no danger of poisoning.  Then you may allow it to heal fully.  Tauriel,” he called over his shoulder, “bring me the drawing salve, please.  Yes, the black one.”


Little Tauriel, just three years old, busied herself day by day helping her guardian at his work.  She got up now from her study of illustrations of medicinal herbs and fetched the small pot of drawing salve. 


It was Thranduil’s wish that she be educated and trained as a healer.  It was a good and necessary profession, and she seemed to have affinity enough for it.  It would be difficult to find a more proficient instructor than Lord Noruvion.  They went foraging in the wood, prepared tinctures and salves together, and occasionally he even allowed her to practice her burgeoning skills on his patients. 


“Now, child,” Norvuion said, stepping back, “the King would be very much obliged if you would dress his wounds.”


Tauriel smiled and eagerly dipped her fingers into the pot.  "You must leave this on until morning, my lord," she said with a professional self-importance which belied her age, generously applying the salve. 


“Just as you say,” Thranduil agreed, amused by her pluck.  “How are your studies progressing, Tauriel?”


“Father says he has never had an apprentice who learned to forage as quickly as I have,” she boasted.


“She has very sharp eyes,” Noruvion said, “and is much nearer the ground than most of them have been.”


“I see you have learned more than the virtues of various plants,” Thranduil observed as she wrapped his arm in a linen bandage and finished it with an elegant knot.  “I gather I am not your first patient.”


“Not quite the first,” Noruvion confirmed with a wry smile which could not conceal his pride, “but she is quite pleased to now be wrapping more than the arms of chairs and the legs of tables.”


“It is impressive work for one so young,” Thranduil commended her.  “Persevere in your studies and I expect in time you will be extraordinarily accomplished.”


She beamed at him but quickly pulled herself together into the most adult manner she could manage.  “Yes, my lord.”


Thranduil left them to their work and walked outside to the stables for his next item of business.  His favorite warhorse had been killed in the last skirmish, and a few new candidates had been recommended to him.  Bronruin, the stablemaster, was waiting for him with all three horses standing ready for inspection on the lawn.


“These are some of the best to be found, my lord,” Bronruin assured him, “all with steady but energetic temperaments.”


“I have always been partial to the gray ones,” Thranduil admitted, stroking the one with silvery dapples.  “But, as they say, any good horse is a good color.”


He was putting each of the beasts methodically through its paces when he saw the two wizards approaching with a Guardsman.  Their appearance was not wholly unexpected; Radagast came and went as he pleased in those days, and Mithrandir always seemed to turn up when matters took a turn for the worse.  Thranduil slowed his horse to a halt and sat waiting to receive them.


“The wizards Mithrandir and Radagast have come to seek an audience with the King,” the Guardsman announced.


“Yes, I can see that, Neldorín,” Thranduil said.  "You may return to your post."


“We beg a moment of your time, my lord,” Mithrandir said with a grand bow.  “I fear we have grave matters to discuss with you.”


No doubt they did.  Thranduil, already well-acquainted with the gravity of his own situation, shrugged imperiously.  “I am occupied at present,” he said, turning his mount to resume riding laps around the clearing, “but if you will avail yourselves of the other horses, you may favor me with your company.”


Once again, Mithrandir could not conceal his flash of irritation, but Radagast seemed perfectly willing to accept the invitation.  They mounted the two ready horses, and Thranduil turned and led them at a brisk pace along the northern road.  It was some time and a considerable distance before he slowed and bid them ride alongside him.


“Now,” he said as the horses caught their breath, “tell me your errand, Mithrandir.”


“As you well know, our errand concerns the alarming resurgence of Dol Guldur,” the wizard explained impatiently.  “Lady Galadriel observed the Necromancer’s return, and at her insistence a council of the Wise has been formed to counterbalance his growing power.  Its affairs will necessarily be intertwined with your own.”


Thranduil frowned thoughtfully, his eyes trained straight ahead.  “And who sits on this council?” he asked, already with suspicions of his own.


“It would be imprudent to name or number them,” Radagast answered, quite candidly.  “Suffice to say, it includes the order of wizards and the great Elven-lords of Middle-earth.”


“All of whom, I am to understand, are greater than I.”  It was salt in an old wound, although it was so old that it barely retained any sting.  He had not expected any different.


Mithrandir glowered at Radagast.  “Not at all, my lord,” he insisted in a more conciliatory tone.  “There is none better placed to observe the doings of Dol Guldur.”


“And yet it has not escaped my notice that no one troubled himself to seek my counsel,” Thranduil said, feeling a bit prickly.  He had initially made up his mind not to be offended by being slighted yet again, but he could not help it.  “Even you have not come to consult, but only to advise.”


“With all due respect, my lord, I believe I already know very well what counsel you would give,” Mithrandir confessed, perhaps a bit harshly.  “You have made your position quite clear before this.”


The gall was rising in his throat now.  “Are my observations truly thought to be worthless?” Thranduil demanded, dropping all pretense of diplomacy.  “Are the Galennath considered of no account in this world?”


“Peace, Thranduil,” Mithrandir snapped.  “You and the Galennath are indispensable where you are, securing the peace in the northeast.  No one doubts your worth.”


“Oh, no?”  Thranduil turned on him, in no mood to be either appeased or lectured.  “The Great Ones appreciate my labors but are content to dismiss my concerns.  I am not blind, deaf, and senseless, yet I cannot make myself heard!”


Neither gave him any answer.  The silence was increasingly uncomfortable and was stirring his accrued frustration into desperation. Thranduil spurred his horse ahead and wheeled it about to stop them all.


“I see him, Mithrandir,” he insisted, angered by how vulnerable he was made to feel.  “I hear him.  I know him.  I was there at Dagorlad, and I was there at Morannon.  Does my word count for nothing?”


Still they did not answer, but the deep sympathy in their looks finally made him despair.  They were truly convinced that his judgment was deranged, and it would be futile to try to persuade them otherwise.  It was just another facet of the Dark Lord’s cruelty that he would never be believed, which was no doubt the reason Gorthaur was bold enough to unmask himself again and again.  It was maddening, but evidently hopeless.


Pulling together what remained of his wounded dignity, Thranduil turned his horse and continued ahead.  “Very well,” he said, steadying his voice.  “Exactly what does this council propose to do?”


“Well, a consensus on that point has not yet been reached,” Radagast admitted hesitantly.  “We will wait and observe until we know best how to proceed.”


Thranduil halted his horse abruptly, the reins clenched in his fist, so violently dissatisfied with that answer that words failed him.  Not only would they not hear him, but neither would they help him until they had interminably argued and reasoned and speculated about the particulars of the situation in some comfortably protected haven while he and his people bled.   The unintentional audacity of it was insufferable.


“Well,” he said at last with what must have been a venomous look, “while the great lords continue to observe and do nothing, I will be about my task.  If any should ever wish to stop squandering their time and join me in arms against our common enemy, I will be keen to hear of it.” 


He turned and galloped back the way they had come, leaving the wizards to return at their leisure.  He bore neither of them any personal ill-will, but at the moment he had no wish to share any more of their company.  Mithrandir acting alone had often proven helpful, and he could occasionally expect valuable assistance from Radagast.  It would not even surprise him to be aided by Galadriel if she independently put her mind to it, but councils were slow and ponderous things no matter how wise and venerable their members.  For a very brief moment he had dared to hope for more allies in his struggle against Dol Guldur, but now he felt as alone as ever. 


He had to remind himself that nothing had changed since that morning, and that he was as prepared as ever to go about their business the hard way.  Despite his disappointment, it was no bad thing to know that someone else was concerned about the state of Mirkwood and was at least contemplating doing something about it.  If matters turned for the worse, perhaps not all hope was lost.


The state of the wood did worsen over the next decades, but so did the state of the world beyond their borders, so no assistance was forthcoming.  Orcs were multiplying at an alarming rate in both the Misty and the Gray Mountains, making travel increasingly dangerous.  Cut off from Eriador and separated from Lothlórien by an ever-widening swath of corrupted forest, Thranduil found himself effectively isolated in the north.  Galadriel’s council was never mentioned again. 


Those were difficult years.  Evil things were on the move everywhere in the world, and the Necromancer seemed intent upon using the strength of his sudden return to finally sweep the Galennath out of the wood.  But, as ever, the Galennath refused to be swept.  The army was deployed more often than not, and the new generations of soldiers had begun to earn that valuable experience which had eluded them before.  Fortunately, their light armor reinforced with spider silk shirts proved effective enough to significantly reduce the number of casualties they suffered.  While most of the serious threats materialized in the southern regions, Thranduil also strengthened the northeastern border guards as a precautionary measure against the growing infestation of Orcs in the mountains, using the assignments there to gently train the rawest of the new soldiers before throwing them into the chaos in the south.


Four decades after the war had begun again, life in the wood had settled into a new rhythm.  Midmorning on an otherwise lovely summer day, Thranduil was reviewing the most recent reports of his military commanders, their movements, their engagements, and their losses.  He was seated behind the King’s great oaken desk now, but he was dressed to join them in a matter of hours.  The defense of their realm had always been a deeply personal task for him, and there was only so much which could be delegated before the spearhead lost its point.  Lord Linhir was once again proving himself indispensable as seneschal, keeping the King’s many affairs meticulously organized and ready for his attention whenever he could spare it.


Now, beneath the stack of military reports, Thranduil found a sealed note from Noruvion.  He frowned, knowing Linhir must have placed it there for a reason. 


“My lord.”  Garavorn, one of his Guardsmen, had appeared at the doorway.  “The horses are ready.”


“Very well,” Thranduil said.  “I shall come momentarily.” 


He opened the letter, read it, and frowned again.  It was about Tauriel.  Noruvion wrote that he was concerned because she had begun neglecting her studies in favor of more martial interests.  All of their people were expected to cultivate reasonable skill with bow and blade as a matter of course, but she seemed to have more than utilitarian purposes in mind, perhaps even a change of career.


Thranduil was still turning the thought over in his mind when the guard at the door stepped inside.


“My lord, Lady Tauriel has come,” he said.  “She wishes to make a request.”


Thranduil folded the letter and slipped it beneath the gathered reports once again.  “Send her in.”


Tauriel entered wearing a smart woodland tunic and a very resolute expression.  She bowed very correctly, as a soldier would, and got right to the point.  “My lord,” she said, “I have come to request an assignment to the forest guard.”


Thranduil let that hang in the air for a moment.  “Noruvion has warned me of your shifting enthusiasms,” he said at last.  “Why?”


“Because there is so great a need,” she answered, obviously prepared to defend her choice.  “I wish to protect our wood and thereby avenge the deaths of my parents.”


It was not an unreasonable instinct, nor an entirely unexpected one, but the voice of hard-won experience warned Thranduil against trusting consequential life choices to the whims of youthful emotion.  Women in the forward ranks were not unheard of, but they were rare and he had hoped for better than a soldier’s life for her.  “Vengeance is a poisonous thing to live for, Tauriel,” he said.  “To be a healer would be a far nobler profession.  Could you not honor your family by restoring life rather than by inflicting death?”


“Is fighting to protect our lands not also a noble profession?” she quipped.  “It is the one you have chosen.”


Thranduil was surprised by her temerity and leveled a severe look upon her.  “Curb your tongue, child.  I am not in the habit of enduring such insolence within my own halls.”


“Forgive me, my lord,” she said, lowering her eyes and seeming genuinely contrite, “I meant no disrespect.  But I cannot be easy as a healer.  I yearn to fight, to defend our realm against the shadow as you do.”


Thranduil sighed.  He still held considerable authority over her, not only as the King but as her childhood guardian.  At forty years old she was still very young, younger even than he had been when Doriath’s fall had suddenly forced him to face the harsher things in life.  But this was Mirkwood, not Doriath, and Tauriel’s trials had begun the day she was born.  He knew her restless energy was indicative of a lack of discipline, but she would find discipline in abundance in the forest guard.  If need be, he could assign her to Legolas’ command and know his eye would be on her.  His son might appreciate a temporary reassignment from the volatile southern border to a quiet post in the north.


“Very well,” he relented.  Her face was lit by a brilliant smile which she immediately tried to suppress.  “Despite what may be my better judgment, I shall grant your request.  You will be assigned to the northeastern border guard under the command of Prince Legolas.  If you prove equal your duties you will be permitted to remain there.  Nevertheless, I would advise you not to abandon all thought of continuing your training as a healer if soldiering does not fulfill your expectations.”


“Thank you, my lord,” she said with another crisp bow, making an admirable effort to contain her excitement.  “I shall endeavor not to disappoint you.”


“Yes, see that you do,” Thranduil said, suppressing a smile of his own.  “Off with you now, I have many other duties to attend.”


She took her leave as gracefully as she could before hurrying away through the corridor, no doubt eager to pack her things and prepare for her new adventure.  Thranduil reached for several clean sheets of paper and quickly penned three notes to put matters in order, the first detailing Tauriel’s first official military assignment, the second explaining the situation to Noruvion, and the third relieving Legolas of his current command and immediately recalling him to the north.  He signed and sealed them and left them on the desk for Linhir to manage.  Then he stood to take himself to the armory.


“Come, Garavorn,” he said, collecting his guard at the door.  “We must not keep our party waiting any longer.” 


Duty called each of them.  Sometimes it called them in surprising ways and to surprising places, but there was nothing to do but answer.




Chapter 35 ~ The City of Bells




The following decades saw little change in Mirkwood, but the fortunes of the world beyond their borders continued to shift.  In their present situation the King felt that it would be unwise to completely disregard the doings of their nearest neighbors, and so his scouts were regularly sent into the rugged lands of the north, east and west.  Their reports were always interesting if not always auspicious.  Legolas was not immediately privy to every detail, but at his current post on the northern border he was occasionally the first to receive the special envoys as they returned to the wood.  His father always informed him of any specific points of interest later in his own hand.


The horsemen of the Éothéod had once again lent their aid to Gondor against the Balchoth in the south.  Their success in that endeavor was so greatly appreciated that King Eorl was gifted a fair but desolate portion of Gondor’s northern territory.  Eorl’s queen had sent messengers to Thranduil to graciously take their leave of him and their realm in the north had been completely abandoned. 


The region had continued to darken for another lifetime of Men before the Dwarves returned to Erebor with their king, driven out of Ered Mithrin by the dragons.  Northmen had begun settling in the shadow of the mountain in great numbers, attracted by the new lucrative opportunities the Dwarves provided.  Their initial settlement had quickly grown into the great city of Dale.  King Thranduil was openly glad of another kingdom of Men in that part of the world, especially now that Framsburg was a ruin.  The increased traffic of Dwarves was not something he or any of his people especially enjoyed, but whatever their faults, the Stunted People did bring a great deal of prosperity in their wake. 


Now it seemed they would be going to see this fabulous new city for themselves.


Legolas folded the letter again and slipped it beneath his jerkin.  “You may go,” he said.  “We will follow before sunset.”  Thranduil’s courier offered him a crisp bow and descended from the flet at once. 


“The King has recalled you?” Calenmir asked.


“Not permanently,” Legolas assured his cousin.  “It seems there is to be a grand festival of tradesmen in Dale before season’s end.  Our King has consented to attend, and Tauriel and I are to accompany him.”


Calenmir’s brows leapt with sudden interest.  “The King has not left the wood in ten centuries,” he said. 


“Then I suppose he has decided it is high time for a change of scene,” Legolas shrugged.  “He has been formally invited and he has accepted.  We are to set sail along the river in a matter of days.”


“I wonder that he insists upon Tauriel’s presence,” Calenmir continued, although his sly smile implied that he did not wonder at all.


Legolas replied with only a reproving glance, refusing to further dignify the comment.   Officially, the King feigned indifference to young Tauriel and her new career, but Legolas dutifully included a detailed description of her progress in each of his reports knowing it would be expected.  Likewise, he had not been personally tasked with Tauriel’s training, but he knew very well why the King had suddenly removed him from the southern border and placed him on the quietest stretch of woodland they still possessed.  Legolas did not resent the assignment; it had proven an enjoyable one, certainly of great importance to his father if not to the realm.  It was no surprise to him that the King had specially requested that young Tauriel attend him on this royal excursion to Dale and Erebor.


“I must say, we never expected the wood to supply you a sister,” Calenmir continued.


“She is the King’s ward and nothing more,” Legolas insisted.  “Even less now that she is of age.”


“Just as you say,” Calenmir agreed, though he made little effort to suppress an impudent smile.


The King’s favor was clearly less subtle than he might wish.


In the beginning, Legolas had shared his father’s dissatisfaction with Tauriel’s determination to become a soldier.  She was quite clever and seemed to possess a great deal of skill which might have been put to better use in pursuit of higher arts, and yet she had chosen the life of violence and brutality so often required of Mirkwood’s defenders.  She had not seen anything especially violent yet, but her training was progressing admirably.  She was still very young, impulsive and driven by strong emotions, but she had begun to gain experience and discipline, though the latter did not seem to come easily to her temperament.


The afternoon was fading when the patrol returned.  Legolas was there to receive them and their report, though very little ever happened in that region.


Captain Tirnorn brought his column to a halt.  “My Lord Legolas,” he said with a deep bow, “the eastmarch continues to be peaceful.  We have nothing of interest to report.  We left Captain Dolaras standing watch.”


“Thank you, Captain,” Legolas said.  “You and your troop may stand down.  But leave Tauriel with me.”


Unlike Calenmir, Tirnorn was disciplined enough to offer no comment.  “As you wish, my lord.”  He turned.  “Tauriel!  You are required.”


She stepped out of ranks as her fellows melted back into the camp in search of rest and sustenance.  “My Lord Legolas,” she said, presenting herself with a bow, her eyes bright and eager despite her recent exertions.  “What is your command?”


“This time it is the King who commands us both, Tauriel,” Legolas smiled.  “We must ride to join him at once.”


 



The river offered the swiftest route into Dale, so on the appointed day the King and his companions set out in a small but impressive fleet of boats, all of them flying the bold green colors of Eryn Galen.  The boatmen passed the time singing lively woodland songs to the beat of their oars, conspicuously foregoing the legendary stealth of their people.


It had been a very long time since Thranduil had last passed the border of the forest, so it was unexpectedly exhilarating to feel the unobstructed wind on his face and to see the open plains of Rhovanian racing by on either side.  He still claimed these grassy plains beside the river as part of his realm and some of their people still made their homes along the banks, but settlements were thin and the land was mostly wild.


Tiring of his seat under the canopy, Thranduil went to stand on the prow to better enjoy the view and the motion of the boat as it sliced rapidly through the water.  He glanced back at the formation sailing with him, each craft elaborately carved and beautifully painted, all driven onward by the indomitable strength of their oarsmen.  The nearest of them bore the remainder of his guard with Legolas and Tauriel.  His son met his gaze and offered a jaunty salute.


Thranduil was looking forward with new enthusiasm to meeting these other lords of Rhovanion.  He was irrepressibly proud of himself, of his people, and of the fierce reputation they had earned beneath his banner.  At that moment, he could have stood before all the kings in Valinor without a regret.  A few Men and Dwarves would be no trouble.


Evening was lengthening when they arrived at the Long Lake.  The ramshackle town which had been built along the shore had obviously benefited from the new munificence of its residents and neighbors, beginning to grow into something of greater consequence than a simple fishing village.  But, despite its improvements, the look of the place still led one to believe the accommodation it could offer would leave a great deal to be desired, and it was already crowded with people on their way to the festival.  The decision was made to press on slowly through the night.


The cloudless sky allowed the stars to shine with all their splendor, illuminating the river with that soft silver light dear to every Elvish heart.  Gil-Estel shone brightest among them, reminding Thranduil even now of all he had endured since he had seen its first rising long ago in the depths of history.  It always stirred a thrilling sentiment that never grew old, the fathomless centuries coalesced into a single bittersweet moment. 


A few hours before dawn, they moored the boats a short distance from Dale, out of the way of the enormous traffic of other boats further upstream.  The mountain loomed above the valley, a vast dark shape against the sky.  Several grand pavilions were immediately laid out and erected to house the Elvenking and his royal party while they remained there.


Thranduil, his guard, and his most intimate companions continued on foot into the city as the first light began to glow on the horizon.  People of all descriptions could be seen coming and going as they prepared their stalls, unloaded and displayed their wares.  Colored pennons fluttered in the breeze, and the clear music of many bells greeted the break of day. 


“Well, Legolas,” Thranduil said, pausing on the bluff, “what do you think of the place?”


“They have been very industrious,” Legolas observed.  “It is a great deal of stonework to have been completed in just six years.”


“No doubt they had some assistance from their neighbors,” Thranduil guessed.  “The Dwarves toil like ants when it suits their purposes.”


“I have not yet seen a Dwarf,” Tauriel interjected.  “Will there be Dwarves at the festival?”


“Undoubtedly,” Thranduil said.  “And that, young Tauriel, is primarily why I requested your company.  It is high time you saw something of the world.  I expect this occasion will prove a very efficient way to broaden your education.”


A herald greeted them at the south gate of the city, and they were escorted to the center of the brightly decorated marketplace where Thranduil was formally welcomed by Lord Brand of Dale.  He was a strong, stout Man, full of good cheer and a great many grand words.  Thranduil only attended as closely as courtesy demanded, bored by the necessary niceties but intrigued by the activity all around them.  Browsing through an exotic market with coin to spend was a rare pleasure.


“Please, my lords, enjoy your visit to our fair city!” Brand concluded at last.  “And, if it pleases you, I would be honored if you would join me at my table at midday for some refreshment.  We have keenly desired to become better acquainted with our woodland neighbors.”


“The honor would be ours,” Thranduil assured him.  “You may expect us.”


Lord Brand smiled broadly and offered a low bow as the Elves took their leave.  Thranduil, too, had every intention of learning as much as he could about his new neighbors, but there would be time enough for that later.  First there was an enormous market to explore.


At first glance, the sheer expanse of the place and the variety of the goods on offer confirmed that it was well worth the journey.  The city was crowded now with people of all descriptions as serious business was conducted against a backdrop of musicians, lively street performers, and hordes of children running about wearing paper crowns and waving brightly colored ribbons on sticks.  The air was thick with a confused blend of intriguing smells, sawdust and new leather, hot meat and fresh bread, blooming flowers and exotic spices.  It would take a considerable amount of time to see it all.


There were gems of all kinds, both finished and rough, and great quantities of amber.  Thranduil allowed his master jeweler to make several strategic purchases.  As they passed metalsmiths of a more practical sort, his master armorer negotiated the future delivery of a large quantity of raw ore from the mountain mines.  A long row of clothiers offered everything from sturdy canvas to the finest silks.  There were also twisted bundles of raw spun yarn in an impressive array of fibers and colors, some fabulously expensive.  The merchants seemed to sense that the Elvenking had brought gold enough to afford the extravagance and were keen to make the most of the opportunity, drawing his attention especially to the skeins made from the hair of mountain goats in the far east.  Thranduil's royal tailor went over the most interesting fabrics with a discerning eye and chose no fewer than thirty large bolts and five large sacks full of yarns.  There were tapestries large and small, carpets and woven rugs, furs and skins of both strange and familiar animals.  There were leathers of all sorts intended for all purposes, some thick and sturdy and others pale and soft, both raw and finished into delicately-tooled masterpieces. 


There was a great deal of food to be had if one wanted it, wheels of cheese large and small, honey and an astounding variety of nuts, bread either fine and white or stout and hearty, spices from near and far and the confections made with them.  The owners of these stalls were quite eager to offer samples of their wares in the hope of selling it off.  Thranduil made certain that enough was purchased to feed his companions so long as they lingered in Dale. 


Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a flurry of activity at a stall occupied by Rhûnish wine merchants.  Tales of the Woodland Realm's prodigious appetite for imported wine had clearly preceded them.  Competition for Thranduil's patronage was fierce among these mortal tradesmen who well understood that earning the favor of the Elvenking could secure their sons for generations.  The patriarch filled a glinting crystal cup and offered it to him at a distance with a grand flourish.  After pretending not to notice for a moment, Thranduil smiled to himself and decided to reward their boldness. 


“Very well, sir,” he said, approaching with his entourage and accepting the cup.  “Tell me why I should prefer your wares to all others.”


“I shall, my lord, with your gracious permission,” the merchant agreed eagerly, he and his sons bowing deeply before the Elves.  “Our grapes are far superior to any others, grown in the fertile valleys of Dorwinion beside the Sea of Rhûn.”


“Such a distance must certainly increase the price,” Thranduil observed critically, interrupting the presentation.


“Certainly, my lord,” the merchant admitted, “but perhaps you will find this vintage well worth the expense, as others have done.  The spirit of our vineyards runs deep within it and is, I dare to say, quite unique in its way.”


Thranduil nodded slightly, impressed by the man's confidence.  He had a cryptic look about him as though he were alluding to certain trade secrets in which he took great pride and yet would never divulge, and after unnumbered centuries’ experience with wine, Thranduil had to admit he was intrigued.  He swirled it critically, observing that it had a very pleasing crimson color.  He condescended to taste it, and then drained the cup.  It was a very sweet wine, although perhaps with a strange underlying flavor the sweetness was meant to either accompany or conceal.  It was quite pleasant despite that, but not especially memorable.  “You know your craft well,” he complimented the merchant, “but I do not find your fabled vintage so far out of the ordinary.”


“Perhaps my lord would be so kind as to taste another,” the Man said, accepting his cup back as his sons quickly presented yet another with slightly paler contents.  “I pray it is more to your liking.”


It was again very sweet but with a lighter flavor than the first.  It was clearly intended to be served in small portions but Thranduil finished the glass again seeing no point in wasting it.  “Had I to choose, I would prefer the first,” he said, returning that cup as well.  “I still do not see . . .”  Whatever incredulity Thranduil had intended to express died on his tongue as he began to feel the wine’s unexpectedly potent effects.  He already felt slightly inebriated, and yet not.  His mind was unclouded, but he felt more deeply at ease than he had for a very long time, his mood inexplicably lifted.  It was heady stuff, and indeed unlike any other he had ever experienced.


The sharp glint in the merchant's eye made it obvious that he had been anticipating this reaction and was inwardly congratulating himself.  Thranduil narrowed his eyes at him suspiciously, provoking very innocent expressions from the whole party of them.  “I would ask what you have done to it if I thought you would ever tell,” he said dryly.


“The soil of Dorwinion has many virtues unknown to other vineyards, my lord,” the old man insisted slyly.  “Would my lord care to taste another variety?  This is from a vine we have cultivated ourselves and which exists nowhere else.”


“Enough,” Thranduil said, gently but firmly refusing any other offerings.  He did not wish to discover what effect further indulgence would have on him at that moment.  It was plain that this wine had been fortified with something other than fertile soil and sunshine, but also that it was something he could thoroughly appreciate.  “You have accomplished your purpose,” he assured them.  “How much do you have with you?”


“We have sixty casks with us today, my lord,” the merchant said, bowing so deeply that he had to secure his cap with his hand.  “How many do you desire?”


“All of them,” Thranduil decided, causing the man to fumble his cap to the ground.  “Deliver them to my master cellarer at the riverbank by sundown, and you and he may agree to a price.  I also wish to receive regular shipments from your vineyards in the future.  You may discuss those arrangements with him as well.”


They were still spluttering their thanks and appreciation as the Elvenking and his entourage moved on into the crowd.  There was still a great deal left to explore.


There were wood carvings of remarkable skill, bells of all shapes and purposes in honor of the city’s most memorable feature, and blown glass of all sorts which was all the more impressive for not being broken after the journey.  There were master herbalists, paper mongers, weapons masters, and toy makers.  There were small exotic animals on leashes, shells from distant seas, and other curiosities.  After a very long time, and as the sun was nearing its midday zenith, they arrived at a distant corner of the market which was notably calmer and quieter than the rest.  There they found the dealers and collectors of manuscripts and books of all descriptions.  Thranduil, mindful of his invitation to the midday feast, knew he did not have time to linger, but a group of Elves caught his eye who were almost certainly from Imladris.  Increasingly isolated as they were in Mirkwood, he would always be glad of some news of his fellows west of the mountains.


“Well met, friends of Eriador,” he said, approaching them.  “Am I correct in assuming you have come from Rivendell?”


“We have, Lord Thranduil,” they answered with low bows, recognizing him at once.


“It has been many years since I have had word of my kinsman, Lord Elrond,” Thranduil continued.  “I trust all was well with him when you left.”


“It was as well as can be expected in this strange and changeable world,” Elrond said from his unobtrusive place in the back.  He silenced Thranduil's surprise with a gesture.  “I am not here in any official capacity,” he explained, “and I wish to remain so.  Thus, I can avoid a great many tiresome obligations I imagine you cannot.”


“You are quite correct,” Thranduil agreed even as the midday bells began to toll, but his joy was already tempered by some measure of concern.  There was pain behind Elrond’s weary smile which they could not possibly discuss in that moment, but which he certainly had no intention to ignore.  “I must go present myself for one even now, but I trust we may soon meet again.  Unofficially.”


 “Of course,” Elrond promised.  “I shall visit your encampment as soon as I may.”


Preoccupied now with other things, Thranduil found it difficult to take a great interest in the pleasantries at the Lord’s banquet, and his wandering thoughts were not the only distraction.  Long tables had been placed end to end in a stone courtyard to create an enormously long rectangular space with the Elves seated at one end, the Dwarves on the other, and the Men in between.  Consequently, if one paid no mind to the servants coming and going, Thranduil and Thrór had a distant but unobstructed view of one another from opposite sides of the yard. 


Perhaps it was because his pleasant humor had been suddenly dampened by his concern for Elrond, or perhaps it was simply a consequence of his own deep prejudices, but Thranduil found the seating arrangement to be more confrontational than he liked.  He and the Kings Under the Mountain had studiously avoided one another until now, forced together by the courtesy due their host.  Brand clearly meant well, but the difficulties lay far deeper than his goodwill could reach in a single afternoon.  Thranduil was by no means intimidated by Thrór, but his initial impression—fair or not—was unfavorable.  It certainly may have had something to do with his ancient grievances against Dwarves in general, as well as his more recent feelings about the murder of King Fram of the Éothéod and the Dwarves’ failure to control the dragons their hoards were attracting into the region.  Whatever the reason, Thranduil lost his appetite beneath the prolonged scrutiny of Thrór and his kinsmen, and he felt his mood hardening.


Legolas could plainly feel the change; he had sobered significantly and kept turning wary glances at his father to gauge his temper.  “The Lord of Dale seems to have taken a great deal upon himself,” he observed discreetly in their own tongue.


“The Lord of Dale is young and inexperienced,” Thranduil replied in kind.  “He does not understand the gravity of what he is attempting to right.”


Tauriel leaned in to speak but Legolas silenced her with a gesture.  Now was not the time for an extended conversation, and moreover the lord of the city had risen to address the assembly. 


“Greetings, honored guests!” Lord Brand began in a buoyant voice.  “I am excessively gratified to receive you all here, the kings and lords of the north, of Mirkwood, the Mountain and the Iron Hills, sitting amiably together at table as near neighbors ought.  I am convinced that greater congress between our realms will secure the prosperity of this region for generations.  The past may indeed be full of strife and grievance, but we need not let the past steal the joy from our future.”


Thranduil arched his brow severely but otherwise sat motionless.  How easy it was for the young to dismiss the past.  It was a cheap sentiment he personally did not appreciate, especially as he was increasingly the only one old enough to remember the past.


“There are scarcely seventeen leagues between the great Elven halls and the Mountain,” Brand continued, “and yet I would wager neither has ever received the other in friendship.”


Reflexively, Thranduil and Thrór looked one another directly in the eye, and then neither wished to be the first to look away.  They may have shared many sentiments on that score, but trust and clemency were not among them. 


“It is a new day in Rhovanion!” Brand declared.  “We are gathered here in a new city full of new promise and new opportunity.  Let us live together in greater harmony for the sake of our sons and the world we may build together.”


The situation was becoming increasingly uncomfortable and irritating.  Thranduil, with all the weight of his years and experience, was not prepared to tolerate being lectured like a recalcitrant child, especially not by an imprudent optimist who had begun walking the earth only yesterday.  He was on the cusp of delivering a sharp rebuke to Lord Brand when Thrór unexpectedly spoke.


“It is true that we have never extended any but the simplest courtesies to one another," the Dwarvish king said, “but if it please you, my lord, I shall be the first to heal the breach.  I and all my court would be honored if the Elvenking would consent to be my guest in the Mountain tomorrow.”


The offer surprised the whole assembly.  Brand seemed delighted and he, like all the rest, looked to Thranduil for an answer.  Thranduil hesitated, his mind churning in the sudden silence.  It seemed like a trap.  Perhaps Thrór expected him to refuse, burnishing his own reputation at the Elves’ expense.  He could not detect any genuine goodwill in Thrór's expression; he looked more like a chess player who believed he held his opponent in check.  Thranduil's every instinct rebelled against placing himself so completely in the Dwarves’ power, yet he did not suspect any real danger and to refuse would imply that he did.  Very well, he would play their little game and see what he could make of it.  There was nothing that could force him to reciprocate later.


“If Thrór has been so gracious as to extend the invitation,” he said at last, “it would indeed be churlish of me to refuse.”  It was courteous enough without feigning enthusiasm. 


Thranduil returned to his pavilion by the river that afternoon.  He had seen enough of the city for one day, heard enough of the ubiquitous music and incessant clamor, and he wished to be alone to think.  The whole royal company was clearly astonished that he had accepted such an obviously insincere overture, and wisely left the King to his thoughts.  Legolas finally approached him as evening fell, finding him seated on a stony bluff overlooking their camp, contemplating the dark silhouette of the Mountain. 


He said nothing for a long moment.  Thranduil could feel his unease and agitation, although his son was resolute enough to express none of it.  “Will I be accompanying you into Erebor?” he finally asked.


“No,” Thranduil said firmly.  “I will not risk both of us at once.”


“You do suspect some betrayal, then?”


“If I did, I would not be walking into it.  But Dwarves are brutal and volatile, and accidents have been known to happen.”


That clearly did nothing to console Legolas.  He knew his history, the sack of Menegroth, the grisly deaths of King Thingol and King Fram.  People bold enough to slay a king in his own halls would have little compunction about killing one in theirs.  Dwarves did as they liked and cared nothing for the prestige of their foes or the outrage of their allies.  Common friendship with Dale would not protect any Elves who ran afoul of them.


“I will go alone with only my guard,” Thranduil said.  “You and the rest may do as you please until I return.  Enjoy the festival while you may.”


“As you wish, my lord,” Legolas conceded without fruitless argument, “but you know I shall have no peace until you have made good your escape.”


Thranduil smiled gently, though the expression had an ironic edge.  “Neither will I.”


 



The next day the Elves did as their King had commanded and attended the festival without him.  They tried to be of good cheer, but they were all distracted by the brooding shape of the Mountain and thoughts of what may be happening there.  Thranduil had taken ship at first light and intended to return before sundown.  Legolas had again been disquieted by the sight of the solitary boat bearing the King’s banner sailing away toward Thrór’s mysterious stronghold, but there was nothing to do but wait.  He trusted his father to have his wits about him, which was all one could do when he was otherwise defenseless.  Still, the creeping voice of his deepest fears imagined adding Thranduil of Mirkwood to the tragic roll of murdered kings and made the waiting more onerous.  Tauriel recognized his distress and was making a sympathetic effort to distract him as they wandered through the market together. 


“Let us see what this apothecary has to offer, my lord,” she said, turning aside.  “I would see how their craft compares to Master Noruvion’s.”


Legolas watched as Tauriel engaged the herbalists in detailed conversation, inquiring about their most unusual tinctures and remedies, how they were made and how efficacious they were.  It revealed again the considerable skill she had developed under her foster-father’s tutelage.  After the better part of an hour, she had nearly exhausted them with questions, and they had resorted to showing her potted specimens of medicinal flowers they had gathered from distant lands.  Intrigued, Tauriel purchased a pouch of seeds from a striking orange blossom they called hirilmalad.  “They say it has a great many virtues,” she said, returning to Legolas, “not least among them the ability to soothe wounds.  Master Noruvion will wish to study it for himself.”


“It seems he trained you very well,” Legolas observed.  “Have you never reconsidered your decision to abandon your craft for a soldier’s life?”


Tauriel turned a tolerant sidelong look at him which implied she may have been more annoyed by the question were it within the bounds of military propriety to be truculent with one’s commander.  “I have never thought better of it, my lord,” she assured him.  “I am quite happy in my new role, and I hope very soon to be of some real service to our lord the King.”  She sighed then and abandoned the banal platitudes.  “It is true that he is not my father, but he brought me into the world when my mother could not.  I wish to honor him and the sacrifice made by my parents, and sadly I have observed that there is more in Mirkwood in need of killing than of healing.”


Legolas said nothing.  He was still not entirely happy with her choice, but it was not his place to voice an objection if the King had chosen to allow it.  But she was young, beautiful, innocent and talented, and he dreaded seeing those qualities worn down and scarred by the harsh duties she had taken upon herself.  “Surely the King and indeed your parents could be honored by any profession you may choose,” he said instead.  “Why this one?”


There was that sidelong look again, but this one came with a shadow of a kindred smile.  “Surely you understand,” she said quietly, “the thrill of standing beneath his banner.  I was born by Thranduil’s hand in the midst of a battle, and I feel I cannot rest until I have fought whatever battles are yet to come.  This is what our heritage has become, has it not?  We have become a race of soldiers.”


 



As the Elves sailed between the wide spurs of the Mountain and approached the gate, they were greeted by the deep beat of many drums hidden behind the elaborate facade.  Without a doubt, it was the most ominous royal salute Thranduil had ever received.  The Dwarvish bargemen at the dock greeted them with silent bows and chained their boat to the landing as they disembarked.  A contingent of armored Dwarvish guards likewise received them in courteous silence and led them up the stairway and through the enormous gates. The drum salute swelled until it was almost deafening, and then it also fell silent. 


Grand halls and passages stretched away before them, elaborately carved and gilded, the immeasurably high ceilings lit by cold shafts of sunlight.  Thranduil was more accustomed than most Elves to living underground, but neither Menegroth nor his own caverns could compare to the sensation of an entire mountain looming above him.  The whole experience reminded him of those strange few days he had spent traversing the length of Khazad-dûm when they had fled from Eregion.  He had never expected to enter a Dwarvish city again.


They were led straightaway into the Great Hall where the King Under the Mountain sat on his enormous throne of stone surrounded by his courtiers, wearing his crown and his jewels and his furs.  Mounted into the throne above his head was the most remarkable gem Thranduil had ever seen, as large as his fist with a pale light of its own gleaming from a thousand facets.  His otherwise implacable face must have betrayed his appreciation because Thrór allowed himself a sly smile of satisfaction. 


“Welcome, Elvenking Thranduil of Mirkwood,” he said, standing, “to our Lonely Mountain.  I must admit I am surprised that you accepted my offer.  It is quite plain that you do not trust us, and yet here you are.  I cannot decide whether your courage is admirable or foolhardy.”


So, it was to be that sort of meeting.  Thranduil was not offended, and even somewhat relieved.  He could be as brutally forthright as anyone.  “It is quite plain that you have no respect for me, King Thrór of the Longbeards, and yet you honored me with an invitation,” he countered smoothly.  “I have merely done you the courtesy of taking you seriously.”


That hung in the air for a long moment before the depth of its bite could be determined.  Contrasting him now against his companions, Thranduil observed that Thrór seemed very young, perhaps only recently come into adulthood.  He had reestablished the Dwarvish kingdom there less than a decade previously.  Thranduil had been born in the First Age of the world and had reigned as King in Eryn Galen for more than two thousand years.  His hosts were children by comparison.


Thrór finally laughed.  “You are quite right, my lord,” he admitted.  “I shall not waste any honeyed words attempting to win you for an ally.  Those tales which are distant history to us and confused rumor to Lord Brand are something quite different to you.  You were there.  You remember.  Perhaps your courage is admirable after all.” 


Thranduil nodded graciously.


“But we also remember the old history even without the benefit of your longevity, my lord,” Thrór continued.  “We remember the greed and arrogance of other kings, Elves and Men alike, and how they came to grief.  If you are honest with yourself, since you were there, you may admit that perhaps it was through their own fault.”


Thranduil was intensely offended by that comment, but under the circumstances he decided that the present vein of conversation was becoming too hostile to pursue.  Even with his guard fanned out at his back, he was quite alone. 


Thrór, too, seemed satisfied enough with his rhetorical victory to change the subject.  “Come, my lord,” he said, standing.  “I would show you something I know you can appreciate.”


Thranduil followed sullenly as Thrór led them through an extremely grand archway into a corridor entirely overlaid with gold.  The corridor then became little more than a stone catwalk supported by enormous arched pillars as it spanned the incredible distance across a cavern chamber which extended both above and below them.  Risking a glance downward, Thranduil discovered the floor of the chamber to be entirely obscured by a vast hoard of treasure greater than any he had ever imagined.  He was indeed impressed, as was doubtless the objective of this whole excursion, but he was determined to give no sign of it. 


At the end of the walkway, a pair of armed guards thrust open two heavy golden doors to allow them to enter another more intimate chamber lit by several iron lanterns.  “I know you were more patrician in your origins than the woodland folk of Mirkwood, my lord,” Thrór boldly observed, “and that you know how to appreciate exceptional jewels.  Feast your eyes upon our choicest treasures.”


It was indeed a sight to see.  Thranduil said nothing, but began slowly pacing along one of the many aisles of stone tables thickly arranged with more magnificent jewelry than one could reasonably hope to see in a lifetime.  On the one hand, it was an enviable treasury in which he knew he could spend many pleasurable hours.  On the other hand, the longer he walked the aisles and considered the individual pieces, the prized regalia of many ruined and pillaged houses, the more tragic and offensive the whole collection became.  Each carcanet, every brooch, ring and jeweled circlet represented a proud heritage come to nothing, plundered and gathered into a mountainous tomb for the solitary pleasure of a Dwarf king.  It was unlikely that any of it would ever see the light of day again. 


It was in this temper that he had to suddenly clench his jaw as he recognized his own crown with those of his Queen and all his brothers gathered into a glimmering pile of white gold and diamonds, lost to them more than a thousand years before.  He had to close his hand into a fist lest he snatch them out of that jumble of spoil.  By a tremendous act of will, he did not alter his pace as he passed them, though it turned his stomach to see Oropher’s heirlooms displayed like trophies.  He would not give Thrór the satisfaction of knowing it.


“You are indeed fortunate to boast to great a hoard as so young a king,” Thranduil admitted, turning back to his host from within the midst of it.  “But I wonder whether you have considered the dangers.”


“Dangers?” Thrór scoffed.  “Do you imagine we are in danger from burglars?”


“From the dragons,” Thranduil said bluntly, his voice echoing in the stillness.  “I have been reliably informed,” he continued in a more even tone, “that your people have been struggling to contain a population of dragons in Ered Mithrin for the past nine centuries at least.  I am also told that it was in fleeing these dragons that you left what remained of your father’s halls and returned south.  Now that you have relinquished the north and gathered the wealth of your people here, will not the beasts be enticed to follow you?”


Thrór glowered at him.  “Any dragon brash enough to attack us here will have a great deal to contend with,” he declared.  “But what is that to you, Thranduil?  You care nothing for our safety.”


“Perhaps not,” Thranduil agreed brusquely, “but I do not wish to see you luring dragons farther into Rhovanion, as Lord Brand has astutely observed, not twenty leagues from my own halls.”


The silence descended again between them for a few long moments before Thrór unexpectedly relented, letting out a long and slow breath.  “Very well, I grant your concern is a just one,” he said.  “No king worth his crown could fail to mention it, so I will forgive your insolence.  I will say only that we and the Men of Dale have been strengthening our defenses against such contingencies.  Let that suffice.  Come, I have more Elvish baubles you can appreciate.” 


Thranduil rumbled under his breath as Thrór turned and led the way to the far corner of the treasury.  He had not hoped for much better from a Dwarf—let alone a young, foolhardy, arrogant Dwarf—but the flippant way in which everyone dismissed his counsel was wearing on him.  He imagined Thrór and his bullish companions charred by dragon fire and was not as sorry as he should have been. 


Being led about like a penniless child in a sweet shop was also becoming tiresome, but Thranduil humored Thrór once again to preserve the fragile peace.  It seemed the King Under the Mountain did possess a great many Elvish jewels.  He recognized the style of the ancient Golodhrim, the Exiles from the West.  There were pieces which recalled the days of Celebrimbor and Eregion before the war with Sauron.  There were many he could not attribute to a particular place or time. 


Then Thranduil saw one that shocked him to the core, causing an eruption of many grand and terrible memories.  It was unmistakable, the flower set upon a disk, set upon a rhombus, set upon a square, set upon a disk, all with jeweled points.  He stopped and seized it out of the pile of brilliants, to the consternation of his host.  “Do you know what this is?” he demanded of Thrór.


“It is a silver brooch set with diamond and sapphire,” Thrór answered, clearly quite annoyed. 


“It is the heraldic device of Melian, the Maia Queen of Doriath!” Thranduil informed him.  “I saw her wear it!”  Nor had she been the only one.  Thranduil thoughts were careening back to the Elder Days as he considered the grisly origins of the brooch’s six-thousand-year journey to the vaults of Erebor.  Nimloth, King Dior’s queen, had also worn it.  She had been wearing it the last time he had seen her, as she had quickly given her daughter Elwing into Oropher’s care while bloody Fëanorians battered down the doors.  It had to have been plundered off her body, then traded by the Golodhrim to their Dwarvish allies until it had by some dark miracle landed in his hand here on the other side of the world.  Melian was gone, Nimloth was gone, Doriath was gone, and indeed all Beleriand was gone, but that brooch remained, a rare tangible link to his earliest years.


Thrór snatched it away and gave it a critical look.  “The workmanship is not exceptional,” he decided dismissively, tossing it back onto the pile, “but we may yet take it to pieces and use it for scrap.”


 



Legolas was intensely relieved to see the King’s boat returning just as the evening sun had begun casting its deep golden light over the clouds in the west, but Thranduil had not even set foot on the riverbank before his son could tell he was in a foul mood.  When the King did disembark, he was still so distracted that he scarcely noticed who had gathered to greet him, full of volatile energy in need of a target.  Legolas imagined his father had been obliged to hold his tongue and endure many indignities in order to accomplish the day’s purpose, neither of which came easily to him after so long on the throne.  Now his frustration was seething out around the edges of his composure. 


Rather than importune him at that moment, Legolas dismissed the guards and quietly fell into line behind Thranduil as he stalked back to his pavilion.  Inside, the King cast off his crimson cloak, swept out his dagger and brutally stabbed a cushion several times.  Legolas and Gwaelas exchanged wary glances. 


“Stupid, rude, pompous fools, the lot of them!” Thranduil shouted amid a swirl of downy feathers, giving vent to the true feelings he had suppressed all day.  “The murderous imbeciles will spill a sea of blood over a fistful of gems and yet have not the slightest comprehension of what they have.”  He twirled his blade and slashed angrily at the air.  “Scrap, indeed!  It is an offense against antiquity and justice!”


“I regret the Dwarves did not meet your expectations, my lord,” Legolas said flatly.


“No, Legolas, they perfectly confirmed my expectations,” his father countered. 


“Did you see Grandfather’s heirlooms?” Legolas asked, guessing at what might have piqued this impotent rage.


“Yes, I did,” Thranduil admitted sharply, “tossed atop a mound of other priceless refuse.”  He slashed the cushion a few more times for good measure.


“Did they feed you, my lord?” Legolas asked, obliquely changing the subject. 


Thranduil sighed and sheathed his dagger, the initial violence of his anger spent.  “Not enough,” he said.


Legolas nodded to Gwaelas who bowed and slipped out to summon the King’s supper.  “You will have a guest tonight if you wish,” Legolas continued.  “Lord Elrond has come.”


Thranduil brightened at once and tossed the ruined cushion behind a larger one.  “Send him in, by all means,” he insisted.


 



As Legolas took his leave, Thranduil brushed the remaining feathers off his jerkin and put the Dwarves out of mind.  Whatever that bizarre interlude might mean for the future, he had more important matters to attend now.


Elrond entered quietly with a pale smile and accepted the warm embrace Thranduil offered.  Gwaelas returned with a train of Elves bearing refreshment for the King and his guest.  It was all very good, if not very fine, bread and cheese from Dale, autumn apples, a fire-roasted fish from the river, and of course an ample supply of wine.


“Here,” Thranduil said, pouring a cup and handing it to Elrond as they seated themselves on cushions on the ground.  “We found this remarkable stuff in the market today.  Whatever the source of its strange virtue, I suspect you have need of it.”


“Ah, yes, the Dorwinion vintners,” Elrond said, taking it gladly.  “I sampled some of their wares yesterday as they were arriving.  I have heard that its soporific qualities have something to do with certain flowers which grow beside the Sea of Rhûn.  Judging by the extraordinary amount you are rumored to have purchased, am I to understand that life in Mirkwood has been especially demanding since last we spoke?”


“A great deal has happened since last we spoke,” Thranduil agreed, remembering just how long ago it had been.  Several centuries at least.  “With Dol Guldur on the rise again and the Orcs infesting the mountains, we have become quite isolated.  I hardly expected to see you here under the circumstances.”


“It was a risk, to be sure,” Elrond admitted, “but some passes are safer than others to those who know them.  I needed to leave Imladris for a time, to get out and see something new in the world.” 


Thranduil had noticed how Elrond’s countenance had fallen when he had mentioned the Orcs in the mountains.  “What has happened, my friend?” he asked, cutting immediately to the heart of the matter.  “I can see that something has.”


“It happened decades ago,” Elrond explained in the flat and emotionless tone of one who has already grieved much.  “Celebrían was to visit her mother and father in Lothlórien, as she often did after the death of her brother.  We had heard of the Orcs multiplying in the mountains, but we did not realize the extent of it, and she would not be dissuaded.”


Thranduil listened with a growing dread in the pit of his stomach.  “Celebrían always knew her own mind.”


“They took her in the Redhorn Pass,” Elrond said miserably.  “Only one of the party escaped to alert us, and it was several weeks before our sons were at last able to recover her.  She would not speak of her torments, but the marks on her body told much of the tale.  I saw the brutal indignities she endured, the damage they had done.  I could heal her body, but her spirit was broken.”


Thranduil said nothing, stricken with a deep sympathy which no words could adequately express.  Lindóriel had been fatally wounded by Orcs and had suffered much, but at least she had never been brutalized by them.  The possibilities were too horrible to imagine. 


“The next year she asked me to escort her to the Havens where she took ship into the West,” Elrond continued.  “I hope she has found her peace there.”


Thranduil groped for words in the heavy silence.  “I am truly sorry,” he said at last, stripped of all royal posture and diplomatic pretense.  “I wish there was something less inadequate that I could say.”


“You do not have to,” Elrond assured him kindly.  “You of all people understand our affliction.  I wish my sons could have the opportunity to speak to Legolas on that score.  The ordeal has awakened an unbecoming bloodlust in them that is nonetheless very effective.  Their incessant raids against the Orcs in the mountains are the only reason the passes are safe enough for travel at present.”


“Well,” Thranduil shrugged, refilling Elrond’s cup, “at least they are being productive.”


They sat together in the quiet of the evening for some time, each taking comfort in the simple presence of the other.  They both knew it was an experience not often to be repeated, especially with the dangers of the world reasserting themselves.  The myriad bells of Dale sounded across the valley as dusk veiled the land in shadow.


“Will you not return to the Wood with us?” Thranduil finally asked.  “You would be most welcome.”


“Thank you, but no,” Elrond sighed.  “Celebrían was with us the last time we saw Greenwood.  To see it now without her, beset again with darkness as it is, would just be another grief.”


“More so than Imladris?” Thranduil asked skeptically.


Elrond seemed to reconsider.  “I am sorely tempted,” he admitted, “but I cannot.  I cannot risk the mountains becoming impassable again while I linger.”


“Very well,” Thranduil conceded.  “We must not trap you on the wrong side of the world.”


It was truly unfortunate that they lived so long and yet so seldom saw one another.  So it must be in Middle-earth, beset with a perpetual parade of griefs and perils which darkened their days and stole the joy of their immortal years.  For a moment he wondered why they loved it so much.


It was said that Elves who lingered too long in mortal lands would begin to fade.  Thranduil had never been inclined to give the matter much thought, but perhaps the process had already begun.  Contrasting them both against their younger selves, both he and Elrond did seem a bit faded.  When one by one the most cherished aspects of their lives were taken from them, it was difficult to not fade.


 



The royal party from Mirkwood stayed a week in Dale.  As time wore on, they stayed less because of the festival and more because Thranduil wished to keep company with Elrond as long as possible before they were obliged to part ways once more.  When at last that time came, the King and all his companions turned their boats south, this time laden with all the fine things they had acquired. 


The return journey was a somber one.  Sensing the King’s mood, and now that all had heard rumor of what had befallen Lord Elrond’s wife, the boatmen confined themselves to more melancholy songs.  An early chill had swept down from the north, seeming to encourage a hasty return. 


Nothing had changed in Greenwood as they passed beneath the trees and arrived at the King’s caverns, but Thranduil was aware that he saw it differently.  As he strode across the bridge, passed through his gates and heard the echo of his tread within his own grand halls, he was at once grateful for the good things they still enjoyed and keenly aware of their deprivations.  Haunted by thoughts of Elrond returning to a desolate home, he found himself remembering those bygone days before their Queen had been taken from them. 


When at last he retired to his private chambers for the night he was still too distracted to sleep.  Instead, he opened an ancient wooden chest which he had seldom disturbed over the years.  Inside were Lindóriel’s gowns and other things he had simply put away rather than discard.  Thranduil pulled them out one by one and saw they were going to pieces with age after lying there for a thousand years, another reminder of just how long they had been without her.  Her scent had long since gone. 


Facing the miseries of life with new purpose, Thranduil gathered the decrepit garments into a sack and took himself to his armory. 


“No cause for alarm, Garavorn,” he assured the Guardsman on duty.  “I wish to visit the Night Watch.”


Garavorn promptly equipped him with his light scale armor, his knives, and his bow.  Properly attired for duty, Thranduil gathered his sack and turned his steps outside into the starlight. 


The long, winding walk circling towards the hilltop was still one of his favorites.  It climbed at a gentle pace and there were many distinctive trees along the way who were old friends.  It gave one a great deal of time to think without actually traveling very far.  When at last he crested the summit, he saw the guards on duty gathered around the fire pit sharing a fresh pot of hot tea as a small comfort against the first winds of winter.  They were startled by his approach and leapt to their feet. 


“Stand down, all of you,” Thranduil said simply.  “I will man your post for a time.  Return in three hours.”


“Yes, my lord,” they all replied at once, and then hurried to leave him in peace.  It was not uncommon for the King to occasionally sit the Night Watch, and he always had reasons of his own. 


Alone on the highest point north of the mountains, Thranduil took a moment to gaze out toward the northwest.  It was just possible to see the gentle glimmer of lights here and there amid the trees, the scattered villages of the Woodland Realm.  There were many fewer lights in the south, these days mostly populated by soldiers defending their slowly shrinking borders against Mirkwood’s advance, as they continued to fight the long defeat.  That was their task, and they must fulfill it.  “Whatever the threat,” Thranduil breathed softly, remembering the oath he had sworn to himself after the Necromancer’s return.  “Whatever the grief.”


Slipping on one of his heavy gloves, Thranduil removed the hot teapot with its iron stand and stoked the fire higher, throwing on several more logs for good measure.  He sat in the rough stone throne which had been built for him and watched the growing blaze until he was satisfied.  Then he drew out one of her gowns and threw it onto the flames.


One by one, he sat and watched them burn.  This was Middle-earth, and he could not hold onto the past.  He could remember it and he could honor it, but time slipped away despite him.  Things moldered, things rotted, things sickened and died every day in Middle-earth.  Eventually the slow decay of time would take everything from them, and that would be enough to make anyone fade. 


But, Thranduil reminded himself grimly, the end of all things was still a distant prospect, and he was not yet so faded that he had forgotten how to fight or his ultimate purpose there.  He was not tasked with holding the Wood for his own pleasure, but to safeguard its people.  Whether he found that pleasurable or not was his own affair.  She had made him promise to fight their war to the end, and he would.  Even as the earth aged and crumbled around him, as they were gradually compelled to sacrifice everything they loved, as they were left ever lonelier in a darkening world, he would.




Chapter 36 - The Days of Dearth  




Thranduil stood perfectly still in the depths of the wood, his eyes closed, his hand resting against the trunk of a venerable beech tree, allowing himself to simply feel the world moving around him.  He was listening to the trees as they conversed without voices among themselves and with him.  They welcomed him, they submitted to him, and they complained to him of the pollution steadily encroaching again from the south. 


Thranduil reassured them in the mute way he knew how, putting forth his own power to thrust back the shadow.  They echoed that power, magnifying it steadily throughout the region as each tree awakened with recognition, pulsing through the intertwined roots, thrumming through the heartwood, reinforcing him with the raw strength of ancient growing things.  They were a silent army awaiting his command. 


No two were exactly the same.  Some were young and eager, some were sorrowful, but now many were angry, and the force they lent him was especially potent.  They wanted the war, begging him to use them against Dol Guldur.  They poured their vitality into him until his spirit was shining with a physical light his body could not contain.  The ripple grew ever outward, farther and farther, until the life of the forest burned within him like a focused beam of sunlight. 


Still Thranduil held back, allowing it to build until it hurt.  Over the years, he had been learning to bear the greater intensity, sometimes painfully, gradually increasing his capacity to wield it until the trees had made him ten times the king he had once been.  At the blinding height of his power, he was minutely aware of everything that moved, but primarily of his companions nearby, of his people in the north, and of his malignant enemy in the south.  Most gratifying of all was the awareness that Dol Guldur was also aware of him, and this time its lord did not laugh.


Finally, Thranduil released it all—the indignation of the trees, his hatred, their fear, his grief, their outrage, his wounded pride—in a single narrow bolt straight into the heart of that dark fortress upon Amon Lanc.  It would not do the Necromancer any lasting damage, and it was only by the element of surprise that he was able to penetrate Dol Guldur’s defenses, but he felt his enemy recoil in pain, and he was satisfied.  It would be sufficient to remind the Dark Lord that Thranduil was still King in the North and that he was not idle.


The trees sank back into silence, their energy spent for the moment.  Thranduil rubbed his tingling hands together as his preternatural aura slowly began to fade.  He heaved a weary sigh and was surprised to see it frost on the air.  It was unseasonably cold for mid-autumn. 


Legolas, bristling with weaponry as any proper prince of Mirkwood should be that far south, was looking at him with new filial pride.  “That was quite impressive, my lord,” he said, returning the reins of the King’s horse.  “I trust it did not miss the mark.”


“It did not,” Thranduil assured him.  “It may be little more than a symbolic victory, but he has struck me so many times that I feel I am entitled to strike him at least once.  Now, let us see how our prospective captain has acquitted herself.”


Their true purpose that day was to meet the return of the southernmost patrol.  The acting captain was seeking official elevation to that rank, and the King had reserved to himself the final decision.  This was the trial run, and everything hung upon its success.


Despite his anticipation, Thranduil was preoccupied as they walked their horses through the outpost.  A stiff northern wind had begun breaking against his back, and the sky was darkening with thick, gray clouds.  It was much too early in the season for a snow storm, yet that was exactly what the shift in the weather smelled like.


“Here they are,” Legolas said, sighting the patrol returning through the trees.


Brought back to more immediate matters, Thranduil tried not to smile as he watched them approach, but he was not entirely successful.  They had the rough look and buoyant energy of victorious soldiers returning from the field.  Leading them all, Tauriel brandished an enormous spider’s head which she threw to the ground at the King’s feet. 


“Your enemies perish, my lord,” she said as she and the others offered a low bow, “as you ordered.”


Thranduil said nothing, though he could not deny that he was extremely proud of her in a strangely conflicted way.  He would still have rather seen her as a master healer, yet Tauriel had applied herself well to her new duties, chasing excellence with a single-minded determination which reminded him of himself.  She had served for several years under the tutelage of Captain Caladwen, who had taught her how to bend her uniquely feminine traits to her chosen career in the King’s army.  Thranduil looked to Caladwen now for her verdict.


Caladwen had served in the troop to better observe her pupil’s performance.  She nodded to the King with a warm smile.  She clearly had no reservations.  Accepting her recommendation, Thranduil summoned Tauriel before him with a gesture.  She came eagerly, dropping to one knee in the fading grass.


“Who approaches the King?”  Legolas asked imperiously, beginning the ceremony.


“It is I, Tauriel Dagoriel,” she answered, knowing her part.


“What do you seek?”


“I ask for the King’s trust,” Tauriel said, “to command his soldiers against his foes.”


Thranduil drew his sword and lay the blade firmly on her shoulder, not sparing the force he used on his other captains.  “You have asked for the King’s trust,” he said, looking her squarely in the eye.  “In doing so you are accepting the responsibility to defend his lands, to bear in some measure his burden of trust to the people who dwell therein, to live and die against all manner of foes.  Do you understand what you are undertaking?”


Tauriel met his gaze without flinching.  After two centuries in the field, she knew very well what the King’s service entailed.  “I do.”


“Swear it.”


“I, Tauriel Dagoriel, swear everlasting fealty to the King of Eryn Galen,” she began, a passionate tremor in her voice, “in joy and in sorrow, in peace and in war, to honor and to obey as my liege lord until he may release me, to live and perhaps to die in defense of Eryn Galen as he himself has sworn.  His foes are my foes, his peril is my peril, so long as his realm endures.”


“So you have sworn,” Thranduil said solemnly, pressing his sword down harder for a moment.  “So you will live.”  He sheathed his blade and bid her rise, that irrepressible smile tugging again at the corners of his mouth.  “Today I bestow upon you the rank of a captain in my service,” he said, affixing a silver badge to her collar.  “Bear it well.”


Tauriel did not compromise her military bearing, though she was obviously radiantly happy.  In a moment it did not matter, as her fellows broke ranks and enthusiastically cheered her success.  In a few moments they had dragged together a rough celebration out of their rations of wine and waybread. 


Legolas smiled.  “She has wanted this for a long time,” he said.


“She earned it exactly as you did,” Thranduil insisted.  “Flattery in the army profits no one.”  Then he frowned.  “Have you noticed the cold?” he asked his son, shifting his shoulders beneath the constriction of his quiver harness.  He felt an ominous restlessness he could not shake off.  “I feel it is much colder than it should be.”


Legolas sniffed the crisp air and frowned as well.  “I had noticed, yes.  But now that it is clearly bothering you, I am inclined to give it greater consideration.”


Thranduil turned and looked at the sky.  The clouds were low and deep and he could sense an oppressive weight about them, as if they were prepared to drop a prodigious amount of snow very soon.  “The leaves have not finished turning yet,” he protested.  The wind was strengthening and it smelled like ice. 


The trees were not yet dormant and a hard freeze so early in the season would devastate them.  Their yields would suffer and famine would follow.  There was very little Thranduil believed he could do about the weather, but he was not prepared to do nothing.  He turned abruptly to Legolas.  “Bed the horses in the stables and prepare to take shelter with the others.  If my instincts are worth anything, we shall soon be snowed in.”


“And you?” Legolas demanded.


Thranduil retrieved a coil of rope from his saddle.  “I have work to do.  Do not come after me.  It may take some time.”


Legolas scowled, but obeyed without question.  As everyone else quickly organized the camp and secured anything of value, Thranduil tied one end of his rope to the door of the barracks building and the other to his belt.  He was not going to risk losing himself in a blizzard.  The first flurries were falling by the time he leapt into the branches of an enormous oak and braced himself against the trunk.


The trees were sluggish in the cold, especially after expending themselves so recently, but they slowly answered as he called them.  He reached out with all the urgency he could manage, not with a plea for assistance, but with a warning and a command.  Sleep.  Winter is upon us.  Sleep now.  Abandon your leaves.  Be still and wait.   Over and over again for several hours until finally the white winds of the storm were howling through the wood and trying to buffet him off his perch, he repeated the same command.  Sleep.  Winter is upon us.  Withdraw.  Be still and wait.   They heard him.  They were confused, but they would obey the King as best they could. 


When at last Thranduil deemed the word had spread widely enough, he stopped the grueling work and paused to gather himself.  There was not much of himself left.  He had not asked for any support this time, so the effort had left him depleted and weak, consumed from the inside out like a candle with too tall a flame.  The bitter cold, to which he would ordinarily have been indifferent, chilled him to the bone. 


Clumsily descending from the tree, Thranduil discovered that the storm had already deposited several feet of snow.  He fought his way through the driving wind along the rope, but found the door blocked by huge drifts.  With the last of his strength, he pounded on the window, and was greatly relieved when his soldiers opened it and helped him to drag himself inside.

 



 



There was little to be done until the storm blew itself out, and it seemed content to rage all night.  Perhaps it would have been prudent to sleep while they could, but somehow they were all too restless to close their eyes.  Perhaps it was because they were each nagged by a soldier’s instinct to stand watch, because the only one sleeping was the King.


In the flickering firelight, Tauriel watched him as he slept, distressed by the sudden change in him.  When Thranduil had returned, he had barely been able to stand, enervated and shivering uncontrollably.  He had accepted some food, and then immediately collapsed into bed.  Only hours ago, he had been a figure of legend, a brilliant remnant of the Elder Days with strength beyond any of them.  Now he had spent himself to within an inch of his life to save the wood from ruin.  It forced her to contemplate the oath she had just taken, essentially the same by which Thranduil had bound himself.  This was what it meant to be the King.  His life was no longer his own, and it may be required of him at any time.


She felt torn between her strongest instincts.  Tauriel knew her place as a soldier, yet at heart she was deeply devoted to Thranduil, and her feminine nature abhorred sitting idly by while he suffered.  She wanted to care for him, fuss over him, bring him another blanket or prepare a hot drink.  But she was no longer young Lady Tauriel, foster-daughter of Lord Noruvion, apprentice healer and ward of the King.  Now she was a captain in the King’s army, and that was not how they were expected to behave.


Even if she was tempted to forget herself, Legolas was sitting on the floor at the foot of his father’s bed, and he leveled a sidelong look at her as if he knew or guessed her thoughts.  It was not a jealous look, but rather one that implied that he could appreciate her inner conflict and would hold her to her duty.  “He will mend,” he said simply.  “He needs only time.”


Tauriel allowed herself a frustrated sigh.  “That, at least, we seem to have in abundance.”  She stood and resumed her restless pacing, feeling like a caged animal.  “This storm is very strange.  Could it be the work of the Necromancer?”


Legolas shrugged.  “I do not know,” he said.  “The King may know.”


“Dol Guldur has harried us with foul weather before,” Caladwen reminded them.


“And yet there are many forces at work in the world besides the Necromancer,” Legolas said firmly, putting a stop to all useless speculation.  “Sometimes a storm is just a storm, however unfortunate.”


They all fell into pensive silence again, and someone threw another log onto the fire.  The wind moaned fiercely outside, searching out every chink in the walls and darkening the windows with snow, seemingly intent upon burying them.  It made the small barracks seem very oppressive, especially with sixteen of them in a room built for twelve.


The King would know best what to do, but to simply wait while he lay insensible was unbearable.  They would be lost without him.  “Surely there is something we can do to aid his recovery, my lord,” Tauriel said, casting about for a plan.  “Did not Lord Galadhmir lend him the strength to live when he was sorely wounded in Mordor?  And did he not keep the Queen alive by his own power for several years?”


Legolas looked at her incredulously.  “That power is beyond any of us here,” he said.  “Patience never was your most robust virtue, Tauriel.  Do not touch him,” he insisted sharply as she took a step forward.  It was not a rebuke, but a warning.  “The King is trying to gather this strength again, and he might unintentionally draw upon yours.”


Tauriel threw her arms wide at what seemed an obvious solution.  “I say, let him!  If we cannot give him our strength, why not let him take it?”


Legolas narrowed his eyes.  “That would be unwise, perhaps dangerous, and certainly not something the King would condone,” he said.  “We have seen how deeply he draws upon the wood.  He may take more than you can safely give.”


“Surely there are enough of us here to at least see him on his feet again,” Tauriel persisted. 


“I agree with Captain Tauriel, my lord,” said Tavoron, one of the King’s Guardsmen, climbing to his feet.  “I cannot bear this hateful idleness any longer, not while he suffers.”


Legolas turned to him with all the stern authority his rank commanded.  “You will bear what your King asks you to bear, Guardsman, be it hateful or not,” he said. 


But now Guardsman Garavorn had come to stand with his comrade, and Captain Caladwen, and one by one all the other soldiers of the border patrol.  “We swore to bear his burdens, my lord,” Caladwen reminded him, “to live and die in his service.  Whatever he may say when he wakes, I do not think he could charge us with faithlessness.”


Legolas sighed, confronted with a benevolent mutiny.  Finally, he stood as well.  “None of you need feel compelled to do this,” he said, “but if you are determined to try, let it be through me.  I may be able to lessen the risk to the rest of you.”


They all agreed.  As Thranduil’s son, Legolas was the most like him and the strongest among them.  They joined hands to form a chain, a living conduit for the King to draw upon, reinforcing one another so none had to bear the brunt alone.  Tauriel took hold of Tavoron on her left, Legolas on her right, and nodded briskly.  “We are ready, my lord,” she said.


Legolas looked back at them with a last glance of grim apprehension, and then gently took his father’s hand.


Tauriel heard him grunt and saw him tense, and in a moment she felt it tear through her as well, a desperate yawning void seeking to be satisfied.  It was like standing too near a whirlwind that reached into the very core of her being, dragging the life out of her with a speed and force that took her breath away.  After only a few agonizing moments, and long before the ravenous demand lessened, Legolas let go.


Tauriel steadied herself against the bunk beside her.  She was cold and unbalanced, and she felt she might be sick.  Her wilting companions-in-arms seemed to have fared no better, and somewhere in the shadows she heard someone vomit.  Legolas wearily sank down to his previous position beside the King’s bed and closed his eyes.  Thranduil drew a deep breath and stirred in his sleep, but did not yet wake.  Despite that, he did seem improved.


Tauriel lay down on the bunk to rest, satisfied but sobered by the experience.  She did not regret it, but now she understood Legolas’ caution.  She did not like to think what might have happened had she attempted it alone.  Her zeal would get her into trouble someday if she could not learn to temper it.  That must be why the elder lords always seemed so grim, forever weighing a thousand different concerns and circumstances before taking any action. 


It would be a difficult habit to learn, but no doubt a very important one.



 

 



When Thranduil opened his eyes, he was very disoriented.  He assumed it was morning, it must be morning, yet there was no sign of it.  The last embers were dying on the hearth, the windows were dark, and everyone else was dead asleep.  That last was the most unusual.  Even amid a blizzard, it was customary to post a sentry.


He sat up and carefully stretched, first one way and then the other, feeling his spine crack back into alignment after a night on the field bunk.  Every muscle ached after yesterday’s ordeal, but it was not unbearable.  He continued to wonder at the lamentable state of his soldiers, but then, out of the mess of dream and emotion and half-formed memory that was the previous night, he began to suspect. 


He prodded Legolas with the toe of his boot.  “A weary night’s work, was it?” he asked.


Legolas blinked and shook himself awake with an effort.  He seemed unsure how to answer, so he changed the subject.  “I am relieved to see you looking so well this morning, my lord.”


“Am I correct in assuming I have more than my own powers of convalescence to thank for that?”


Legolas looked rather sheepish.  “Tauriel began it, but they all insisted on making the effort,” he said.  “There was no dissuading them.  I stood between lest they injure themselves.”


“An extremely generous sacrifice on their part, to be sure,” Thranduil said, “and extremely reckless.  I am not ungrateful, but I trust their sorry condition this morning will dissuade them from taking such risks in the future.”


Legolas looked at him with a wry smile.  “They may think twice the next time,” he agreed, “but I doubt any one of them has thought better of it.  You know them too well for that.”


Thranduil returned the expression.  “Yes, I do.”  He would not change them for anything.  “But, sick or not, we have many duties to attend.  Get them up.  We must see if we can find the sun.”


As Legolas stirred the rest of them, Thranduil opened the door.  He was met by a frozen wall of snow.  Borrowing a broom from the hearth, he thrust the handle as high into the drift as he could and stirred it, looking for the top.  It was just within reach, and the blinding glint of sunlight confirmed that it was indeed morning.  Digging and compacting a path to the top, Thranduil eventually broke the surface and thrust his way out into the free air. 


The view was equally beautiful and awful.  The structures of the outpost were barely visible above the suffocating blanket of snow, and the forest for miles in every direction was drowned in the silent frozen flood.  He climbed out of the hole he had made and stepped lightly out onto the surface, enjoying for a moment the utter quiet and stillness a new snow always brought.  The freak storm was not the work of the Necromancer, he was certain.  It felt too clean, too natural.  But, whatever its origins, it would still cause a great deal of grief.  Thranduil hoped his efforts had not been in vain, that the trees had been able to protect themselves against the worst damage, but that would not be apparent until winter broke.  In the meantime, the autumn harvest was unfinished, and the wild beasts would certainly suffer.  There were lean times ahead.


The others were beginning to join him on the vast field of snow.  Thranduil waited a moment until they had all presented themselves and then turned to face them.  They still looked a bit ragged, but they stood in their ranks to receive their orders.


Thranduil considered his words carefully, looking them over with a critical eye.  “I gather you have all been taking risks beyond your station,” he said severely, “even after you had been advised against it.”  None dared to meet his gaze, looking discreetly at their feet or blindly into the distance.  “Any one of you might have been severely injured.  It was unnecessary and foolhardy . . . and deeply appreciated.” 


Now they did look up, sharing sidelong smiles with one another.  Thranduil arched his brow and they immediately straightened again, allowing him to continue.


“I will say that I am greatly honored by your sacrifice, that I could not wish for braver or more loyal soldiers, but also,” he qualified, “that I hope you will be more willing to heed the counsel of your superiors in future.”


“Yes, my lord,” they all said in crisp unison.


“Very well.” Thranduil smiled.  “I hope you all conserved strength enough for our work this morning, for we have not another moment to lose.  We must dig out the horses.”


As it happened, that was the beginning of an extraordinarily harsh winter.  The freeze was deep, and the snows never relented.  For five months the north was buried in a frozen sea.  Roads had to be excavated and continually cleared to be of any use.  Rations were short, but no one starved.  Many animals had to be culled to protect the wellbeing of the larger population, and the meat was not wasted.


The thaw finally came in the spring, but the absurd masses of melting snow soon saturated the ground and caused persistent flooding.  The rivers swelled and the rest of the wood was ankle-deep in cold water and mud for more than a month.  The floodwaters did not much trouble the dormant trees, but the small shrubs and undergrowth were suffocated and died off.  The berry yeilds would be poor that year.  Fortunately, Thranduil’s efforts to preserve the wood had done just that.  The broadleaf trees within his borders had suffered very little damage and rebounded quickly.  The evergreens were marked by winterburn in their extremities, but soon recovered. 


The worst effects of the long winter would not be apparent until the summer and autumn, but Thranduil suspected it would be grim.  Spring planting in all the surrounding lands would be delayed by the flood, and crop yields would be dismal.  Famine seemed unavoidable.  There would probably be nothing available to import that year at any price.


That would change things.  Not only would they have to adjust to life without the supplies of grain, fruit, and other staples to which they had become accustomed, but other realms would be suffering as well.  The situation presented a strange amalgamation of hardship and opportunity, and Thranduil was determined to make the best of both.


By order of the King, the spring foraging began on an unprecedented scale, anticipating the needs of the neighboring populations.  Spruce tips, pine shoots, and young bulrushes were collected and fermented.  Healthy maple and birch trees were tapped for sap.  Mushrooms were gathered and dried.  Pollen from the same pine trees and bulrushes was gathered for use as a spice or to be made into bread.  During the summer they gathered every flowering weed with seeds enough to be worthwhile as alternative grain.  They ventured beyond the edge of the wood to cut the grasses in the empty lands and dry it into winter fodder for the horses and the few other animals they kept.


The famine struck the north with sudden brutality in the autumn.  Thranduil’s scouts confirmed that many crops had failed in Rhovanion and that people were beginning to starve.  Representatives of Esgaroth and Dale were the first to approach him to negotiate for his gathered stores.  Thranduil had already given the situation a great deal of thought, and he pulled aside the emissary from the Lord of Dale to speak to him particularly. 


“Walk with me,” he said, inviting the Man to accompany him deep into the storerooms.  “We have anticipated your needs and are prepared to provide the provisions you require.  There is one point, however, upon which I would have your lord’s cooperation.”


“Name it, my lord.  The Men of Dale have always honored their friendship with the Wood.”


“Erebor has not yet approached me,” Thranduil explained, “yet I imagine they must be suffering as well.”


“Undoubtedly,” the emissary agreed.  “They purchase large winter stores from us each year at this time, but now there are none to spare.”


“I am not insensitive to the plight of Thrór’s people,” Thranduil continued, accepting the keys from the cellarer, “and I would not wish starvation upon anyone, but in this case, I have decided not to deal with them directly.  This famine may endure for some time, and I will expect to be well compensated for stripping the Wood of its resources on your behalf.  The expense may well ruin Dale unless other arrangements are made.”


The Man’s face had become very grim.  He was not in a position to object, and he knew it.  “I am listening, my lord.”


Thranduil paused for a moment to unlock a storeroom door.  He opened it to show his guest an enormous collection of wild seeds in sacks.  He then closed and locked it again and continued walking.  “King Thrór sits upon a vast hoard of treasure in the depths of the Mountain,” he said.  “I know because he had the courtesy to show it to me.”  He unlocked the next door, displaying casks upon casks of tree syrup and honey, then secured it again.  “I am willing to accept a modest price for our first shipment to Dale if your lord will consider purchasing a surplus.  It will be his responsibility to sell that at a dearer price to the Dwarves in order to meet my requirements in future.”


An understanding dawned on the Man’s features as Thranduil opened the next door upon an extremely precious collection of smoked meats.  “I see the wisdom in your scheme, my lord,” he said.  “Thus, the wealth of Erebor may both recompense the Wood and support our city through our hardships.” 


Thranduil allowed himself to share a cunning smile with him.  “Such are the perils of flaunting your treasures.  Had Thrór the benefit of greater experience and shrewder kingcraft two hundred years ago, he may have thought better of it.” 


The Dwarves had bled him dry when once he had sought their assistance, and he was quite happy to return the favor.


The autumn foraging continued with new purpose now that the cruel circumstances of the surrounding lands were known.  Fortunately for everyone, the oaks had determined it to be a mast year and dropped acorns in special abundance.  Beechnuts and chestnuts were also gathered, though with care to not deprive the animals of their sustenance.  The berry bushes had been replanted but were too young to yield any fruit.  The Queen’s rose petals were harvested and dried, and later the ripened rose hips.  Many plants produced another crop of seeds which were carefully collected before the plants themselves were harvested, leaf, stalk, and root, in the face of the oncoming winter.  The last mushrooms were cut.  As the season grew late and the cold was coming upon them again, whole birch and pine trees were felled not only for fuel but so that both the outer and the tender inner bark could be shaved off and made into rough flour.  Then the hunting began in earnest, gathering the meat of deer, boar, and even bear before the beasts could be emaciated by the winter.


Then the snows were upon them again.  It did not seem as though it would be as long or as cold as the previous winter, but winter was winter, and it always brought its own challenges.  While the Wood had been spared the scarcity inflicted on the world all around them, it was no easy feat to support themselves and all the realms of Men and Dwarves into the bargain, no matter how lucrative the effort may be.  Thranduil’s treasuries were full, but his cellars were rapidly emptying.  The demand from Rhovanion had not lessened, and yet he was reluctant to bleed his own people any further.  He took counsel with his lords and governors and it was decided that they could afford to continue supplying their neighbors with the barest necessities if they all agreed to live on strict rations themselves.  Unable to conscience setting adrift even the Dwarves in the dead of winter, Thranduil agreed. 


It became a slow race to see whether their stores would hold until the thaw.  Thranduil attempted to lead by example, as miserable as he found the task.  Pine was admittedly not his favorite flavor, yet now he found himself and his guard deep in the wood with nothing to eat but wretched pine bark waybread and the dregs of a supply of pine needle tea.  An ice storm had delayed them unexpectedly and they had exhausted their provisions, particularly for their horses.  Thankfully, they were nearing a village of Woodmen.


Dorthaer hailed the inhabitants as they approached, and several people piled out of their doors as the Elves dismounted in front of the largest hall.  “King Thranduil!” the chief among the elders stammered, bowing awkwardly.  “We did not expect you!”


“And I did not expect to be here,” Thranduil said, quite honestly.  “My companions and I can bear the deprivation a bit longer, but we must have something for our horses.”


“Forgive us, my lord,” they said, “but we have nothing to spare.”


“What have you been feeding your own animals?” Thranduil asked.


“We ate our animals some time ago, my lord.”


“I see.  Bread, then.  You will be greatly rewarded.”


“A gracious offer, my lord, but I fear it would do us little good.  We cannot eat your gold.”


Thranduil sighed tersely.  He could not fault them for their poverty.  “Do you have anything at all?” he asked.


“What bread we have is the last of our stores,” the chief admitted.  “There is not enough even for us.”



Thranduil frowned.  He felt all of them watching him, felt the cold sadness of despair that came with hopeless hunger.  They may be delayed there much longer than he had planned.  “Put the horses in your stable and feed them,” he said.  “Wait for me.  I will return as soon as I may.”  He bid his guard stand down and stalked away into the frozen forest alone.


The storm the previous night had covered the whole landscape in a thick coat of ice, and the only sound was the creaking and crackling of the trees in the breeze.  Thranduil took his bow in hand and fitted an arrow to the string, though he did not trouble to disguise his movements.  He was loath to use his influence in this way, but he did not have time to conduct a proper hunt.  Cruel circumstances pressed them all.


Standing alone in a snowy clearing, Thranduil cleared his mind and put forth his call. 


It was a long and weary wait, but the wood once again answered to the King.  An old stag presented himself, gliding slowly into the clearing, still proud through weak and thin.  Rather than starve to death, he in his mute animal way consented to submit to the King’s necessity.


Thranduil put away his bow and reached out to stroke him, reluctant now to do what he must.  He was a magnificent beast, scarred by many seasons, crowned with a regal pair of antlers which he had retained very late into the winter.  It was as if he understood he would not live to see the spring and wished to die with his dignity intact.  He would not suffer much longer.


Thranduil put his hand on the stag’s shoulder and gently let him back through the frozen stillness.  It was a somber procession, and even the winter birds kept silent.  The village seemed deserted except for the plumes of smoke as the Woodmen sheltered from the cold.  Only the King’s Guard stood watch, and they quietly mobilized to assist him.


At last, the stag folded his legs beneath him with a groan and lay in the snow.  Thranduil sat with him for several long moments, resting the great shaggy head on his shoulder.  Word had spread and the Woodmen began to reappear, but none dared disturb the silence.  Dorthaer approached with a basin, and Thranduil gently indicated the hind leg.  Understanding immediately, Dorthaer positioned the basin and drew his knife.  One shallow but decisive cut released a copious flow of blood driven by the beating heart.  The noble beast would be allowed to bleed out quietly in the arms of the King.


Finally the stag slumped heavily against him, and Thranduil knew it was dead.  It took him another moment to put aside the melancholy emotion of the experience and turn to the grislier business at hand, but a moment was all that could be spared.


Dorthaer carried away the collected blood as Thranduil and Tavoron tied a long rope around the stag’s neck, dragged it away to a nearby tree and hoisted the carcass into the air.  Shedding his vambraces, Thranduil grimly rolled up his sleeves and tied back his hair, drew his knife, and opened the carcass from top to bottom.  His guards appeared beside him in turns with borrowed bowls and trays to receive the heart, lungs, liver, and tongue as he cut them free.  Everything else that required additional preparation was set aside for the Woodmen to cache. 


Finally, the cavity empty, Thranduil propped it open with a stick and left it to hang until the rigor of death subsided.  He turned, bloody up to the elbows, back toward the center of the village where his soldiers had thrown together a hurried blood soup with the offal in the great cauldron above the fire pit.  Some of the women thoughtfully brought him a pail of icy water to wash in, which he accepted graciously.


He had fed them for a day, perhaps even for two, but it would not suffice for long.  When he returned home, he must see if there was anything he could send them.  When he had reassembled himself, Thranduil came to stand with Dorthaer as the other supervised the proceedings.  A weary line of villagers had formed with bowls in hand to receive their portions.  Thranduil’s own empty stomach churned, but he chose to ignore it.  He knew where his next meal would come from, which was more than these people could say.


A small child kept looking at him as she and her mother approached the fire.  Thranduil thought nothing of it; he was well-accustomed to being an object of curiosity.  They were served their meals and the mother tried to steer the child away, but the young one hesitated, her small brows furrowed beneath her heavy woolen cap.  Then she turned and marched over the snow toward the Elvenking.


She was little more than a bundle of coats and scarves with legs, carrying her steaming bowl very carefully.  She stopped in front of Thranduil and wordlessly held it up to him. 


“Thank you, dearheart,” Thranduil said, gently accepting the bowl from her.  She stared up at him unabashedly for several long moments before simply turning and marching back to her mother. 


Thranduil turned to see Dorthaer smiling broadly, a rare occurrence.  “She would not have you feel unappreciated, my lord,” he said.


“No, indeed,” Thranduil agreed.  He knew very well that he was appreciated, but it was a comfort to be reminded from time to time, to have someone see through him so completely and acknowledge his needs. 


It made the hardship worthwhile.




Chapter 37 - Fire




Almost as soon as the famine induced by the Long Winter was finally breaking, Dol Guldur redoubled its assault upon the north.  The Necromancer recognized their weakness and pressed them on all fronts, challenging their borders, infesting the wood with spiders and other foul beasts, and darkening Thranduil’s dreams so that he could get no rest.  So determined was the onslaught that within a few years the darkness of Mirkwood had completely overtaken the western border of the wood, leaving the Galennath restricted to the northeastern region beyond the Forest River.  It was at the river that Thranduil stubbornly planted his standard once again, halting the shadow’s rapid advance with a monumental effort.  He spent almost an entire year deployed among his soldiers along that border, strengthening it against further incursions and building a network of defenses. 


The following decade gave them no reprieve, though the border held firm.  The shadows of Mirkwood were deep, but Thranduil was determined to at least maintain their road which reached to the western borderlands.  He may not be able to hold the entire wood, but he had no intention of being stranded in the east without a fight.  Heavily armed patrols were sent regularly to cut back the choking foliage and to remind the encroaching darkness that the road belonged to the King.


It was one of these patrols which was of concern to him now.  He had been urgently called to the river which cut through that region, flowing down from the polluted mountains of Mirkwood before it joined the Forest River in the north.  Its waters had been dark ever since the mountains had been overrun, but now he was given to understand that its condition had dramatically worsened.


Legolas was waiting at the bridge when Thranduil and his guard arrived and dismounted.  He certainly looked very grim.  “There has been an incident, my lord,” he said.


“An incident?” Thranduil repeated dryly.  “I do not like the sound of that.”


Legolas turned and led him into the guardhouse built unobtrusively amid the trees on the near bank.  On the bunks inside lay three shrouded corpses and two other soldiers who, although still alive, seemed utterly insensible to what moved around them.  Immediately apprehending the gravity of the situation, if not the cause, Thranduil turned back to his son.  “Speak to me,” he demanded.


“They were making ready to repair the bridge,” Legolas explained.  “These five leapt into the water to inspect the damage, but were immediately stricken with an enchanted sleep.  Three drowned, but these two were pulled out in time.”


“And what has their condition been since?” Thranduil asked.


Legolas shrugged.  “Just as you see, my lord.  They have not stirred for several days.”


Channeling his anger and dread into a cold resolve, Thranduil lay his hand on the nearest victim.  He could not feel any distress in him, simply a deep and unnatural restfulness.  He discerned even a hint of pleasure, which strangely annoyed him.  He inserted himself into what were obviously pleasant dreams and muddled them up, gradually dragging his soldier back to consciousness.  He did not pay them as well as he did to be forever whiling away the hours, worrying everyone and causing him anxiety he could ill afford.


The soldier stirred in his sleep, eliciting a ripple of relief among his comrades who had gathered at the door.  Then he stretched and frowned.  “Why did you wake me?” he complained bitterly.  “I had no desire to leave such a lovely dream and return to this miserable place.”  Then he opened his eyes and saw the King standing over him with a baleful expression.  He scrambled upright and fought to compose himself.  “Forgive me, my lord,” he said.  “What is your command?”


Thranduil gave him a last critical look before dismissing the matter.  “My command is that you recover yourself as soon as possible,” he said, moving on to the next in need of his attention.  “There is work to be done yet.”


He found the other in much the same condition.  Thranduil disturbed his repose as well, calling him out of the realm of pleasant fantasy and back into the waking world of toil and trouble.  The indignant soldier took a blind swing at him, but Thranduil caught his wrist.  “Leave off, you fools,” he grumbled, trying to shake the King’s grip. 


“Not quite the correct manner of address for your King and Commander,” Thranduil said, startling the life back into him in turn.  “Pull yourself together.” 


While the rest of the patrol rejoiced in the survivors’ recovery, Legolas accompanied Thranduil down to the riverbank.  The water did not seem particularly threatening, perhaps a bit darker and gloomier in the deep places.  Thranduil crouched and put his hand near the surface, careful not to touch it.  “There is certainly some foul enchantment upon it,” he said, standing again, “if not the work of the Necromancer, then certainly by some servant of his.  Perhaps we may blame the wraiths.  They have been abroad spreading their morgul curses of late.”


“I suppose we should be thankful that its effects are not so unpleasant or so permanent as we feared,” Legolas said, but then he retreated a step as Thranduil frowned at him.  “That is, if one survives the onset,” he amended.


Thranduil was seething interiorly, his temper worn thin by the strain of the past years.  This was just another addition to the accumulation of unpleasant indignities he and his realm had to endure.  He would have to study the enchantment which had poisoned that stream, and hopefully prevent it from spreading into the Forest River.  It would be truly unfortunate to be deprived of all their most dependable water sources. 


As he returned along the Elven road to his own halls, Thranduil turned aside briefly to inspect Tauriel’s position.  She was clearing the spiders along the southern border of the Forest River, as had become her special obsession.  The Necromancer’s monstrosities were intruding ever nearer, choking the trees with their webs and unsettling the whole region.  Very little seemed to intimidate them, so the best solution was still to simply slaughter them.  There was always a small reprieve in the winter when they could discover and destroy the eggs, but it never seemed to last.


Thranduil found the patrol just as they were gathering several large corpses for burning in a glade offensively near the palace.  “I see you have been about your business, Captain,” he said, slowing his horse but making no move to dismount.  “The creatures apparently know no shame.”


“They have grown very bold, my lord,” Tauriel agreed, cleaning her filthy blade.  “I fear they are spawning much nearer Dol Guldur.  Perhaps if we hunt them near their source, we could finally stem their spread.”


Thranduil arched his brow at her casual audacity.  “It is not the logic of your scheme which is at fault,” he said, “but its practicality.  That dread fortress lies well beyond our borders, and I will not sacrifice my soldiers to antagonize it.  Your task is to keep our own lands clear of these foul creatures, which I am certain will prove challenge enough.”


“But will they not spread to other lands if we fail to cull them?” she demanded.


“Perhaps,” Thranduil allowed, “but other lands are not my concern.”  He knew he should no longer tolerate such bald questioning from her, but old habits were slow to change.  “You and I may be loath to admit it, Tauriel, but we all have our limitations.  You have seen the ruin in the west which our greatest efforts have only just managed to contain.  Would you have me neglect the defense of our realm to bother about spiders wandering into Wilderland?”


Tauriel sighed, impatient and frustrated.  “No, my lord,” she said.


“No, indeed.”  Thranduil offered her a conciliatory smile.  “If we try to be all things to all people, we are nothing to anyone.  Let the people of Wilderland manage the perils of this world in their own way.  We have troubles of our own.”


Tauriel’s face settled into a sort of resigned scowl, as though she wanted to say more but could not yet find fault with his reasoning.  Before she could give the matter deeper thought, they were interrupted by a shrill flock of birds flying overhead in alarm.  They arrested Thranduil’s attention at once.  Other small flocks followed, streaking into the west with an unsettling urgency.  They spoke of danger, ruin, death, and fire.  Fire, fire, fire.


Not yet certain what to make of it, Thranduil spun his horse around and raced back to the caverns.  If there was anything to be seen, he could see it much more clearly from a higher vantage point.  Their mounts were winded and coughing by the time his party crested the summit of the hill, but Thranduil was immediately gratified to see the wood was not ablaze.  An ominous plume of smoke, however, was rising from Erebor in the distant east.  Dale, it seemed, was also burning. 


“What has happened, my lord?” Garavorn asked, following his line of sight.


Thranduil motioned for silence, watching the disaster unfold, a keen and terrible suspicion growing in his mind.  Then he saw it, sailing out of the choking fume on broad coppery wings, spewing flame on the sides of the Mountain.  He cursed sharply.  “Dragon.”



 



 

“Do you intend to send succor to the survivors of the attack?” Linhir asked as he and Thranduil strode purposefully through the caverns.  The place was stricken with a strange kind of slow panic, no one quite knowing what to do or expect.


“Absolutely not,” Thranduil said.  “No one is to venture beyond the trees until we are certain the beast is settled in the Mountain.  I will not provoke it nor risk luring it here.”


“Understood,” Linhir agreed, though his brow furrowed.  “But it seems rather cruel to simply leave them to their fate.”


“They brought this calamity upon themselves, and I have other obligations,” Thranduil growled.  He sighed and paused for a moment in the passage.  “I will not risk our own people,” he said, “but any who seek shelter in the Wood are free to do so, Man and Dwarf alike.”


Linhir nodded.  “The marchwardens will be informed,” he said. 


“And tell Master Noruvion to be prepared to treat a great many burns,” Thranduil added, dismissing him.


He had learned to brave many adversaries in his time—Orcs, Trolls, Wargs, monstrous spiders, Ringwraiths, evil Men, corrupted Elves, and even Sauron himself—but there were still other foes in Middle-earth of whom Thranduil wanted no part, and dragons were among them.  The fire-drakes especially haunted his dreams after they had briefly encountered them during the War of Wrath. 


His strongest instinct was to be silent and hide until the beast claimed his spoils of war and disappeared.  Its armored scales would be nigh impenetrable and its capacity for wanton destruction immense.  Armies would be useless against it, charred and scattered like so much kindling.  Only stealth or an impossibly accurate frontal assault by a single champion would stand any chance at all, and Thranduil would have the advantage of neither at the head of a large force. 


After a day or two, the watch on the summit of the hill reported that the dragon was no longer seen outside the ruined halls of Erebor.  Some of the people of Dale had fled to the temporary shelter of Esgaroth, others had stubbornly determined to stay in the smoldering wreck of the city, and others had begun the weary march to Mirkwood.


As the King had promised, all were granted leave to shelter in the wood until they could determine whether they would seek homes elsewhere or return to rebuild.  They mostly kept to themselves, grateful for the Elvenking’s generosity, but in no mood to be sociable.  It was rare that he was obliged to grant audiences to any of their alms-guests, but before many days had passed Thranduil was approached by an impressive delegation whom he could not ignore.  They were announced, as proudly as may be considering recent events, as he sat on his throne attending the business of the morning.


“Thrór, King Under the Mountain, Thráin, son of Thrór, Thorin, son of Thráin, and their companions seek audience with Thranduil, King of the Woodland Realm.”


The lynx at his feet, whom Tauriel had given him as an orphaned kit, rose with a rasping growl, sensing the sudden tension in the court.  Thranduil rebuked her, and she leapt up to sprawl in his lap.  “I shall hear them,” he said, and though it would have been unseemly to admit it, he could not help feeling a twinge of deep satisfaction as the circumstances of their first meeting were reversed. 


The Dwarves approached him stiffly, clearly uncomfortable with the new humility required of them.  “My lord,” Thrór began, “you have surely heard of the misfortune which has befallen us.  Smaug, the greatest of the last fire-drakes, has come upon us suddenly and driven us from the Mountain.  Our armies are destroyed, and our people are scattered.  Our brethren in the Iron Hills will march to aid us, yet I fear their forces will prove insufficient without reinforcement.  We must beg your assistance in routing the dragon from his hold.”


Thranduil said nothing, the silence disturbed only by the rumbling purr of the cat as he pensively kneaded her scruff in his fingers.  He was not savoring the moment at the Dwarves’ expense, but rather considering his reply.  His mind was already decided, yet he knew his answer would fall hard upon them after they had so abased themselves.


“As you yourself observed many years ago,” Thrór continued, filling the awkward silence, “it is in your own interest as well as ours to see the dragon removed.  For any service you and your armies render in our cause, my lord, we shall place ourselves in your debt.”  The entire party of them bowed low over their belts so that their beards touched the floor.


Thranduil recognized the solemnity of the gesture, and he chose his words carefully.  “I am deeply sensible of the honor of your proposition, my lords,” he began.  “There are none who do not know the value and the fearsome reputation of Dwarvish soldiers.  However,” he said, coming to the grim point, “the ease with which the dragon worsted such doughty warriors does not encourage me to commit my own.”


The Dwarves straightened and their faces darkened.  It was not the answer they desired.


“While you are correct in assuming that I greatly desire to see the dragon removed,” Thranduil continued, “I cannot see how it may be done, certainly not by sacrificing my entire army to the flames as you did.”


Thrór was livid, and the rest of his companions with him.  “You would leave us to rot in the wilds?” he demanded, incredulous.  “Do you lack all honor?”


“There is no honor in this world which will oblige me to waste the lives of my people in another’s folly,” Thranduil insisted, finally raising his voice.  “I warned you of what your greed would summon, but you would not listen.  There is nothing to be done.  Erebor is lost.  That is no fault of mine.”


“Certainly it is lost if neighbors and allies are content to do nothing!” Thrór raged, hot with despair.  “Mighty Thranduil, the great and generous King of the Wood, now refuses to honor his word!  He would turn his back on the suffering of my people, using his duty as a cloak for his craven avarice!”


“I have reigned far too long to be swayed by cheap accusations of cowardice!” Thranduil sneered.  “I am sworn to none but my own people.  To march against the dragon is out of the question.  I will not consider it.  The slaughter would be unconscionable and likely fruitless.”


The indignant Dwarves moved to storm out of the hall, but the guards closed ranks around them at a gesture from the King.


“Be that as it may,” Thranduil continued icily, not finished speaking yet, “since you have impugned my generosity, I must see that slander plainly contradicted.  You may enjoy my hospitality as long as you can stomach it.  Afterward, you will be well supplied and granted safe conduct to pass through my dominion and go where you will.  I advise you to be satisfied with that.”


The final looks they exchanged were poisonous, but Thranduil was unconcerned.  He doubted he would see any of them again.


He was as good as his word.  Thrór and his companions were too aggrieved to linger more than a few days, and when they announced their intention to leave, they were warned of the various dangers along the route, furnished with letters of safe conduct, stout woodland ponies, supplies, food, even some small weapons and a little money.  In their present state, the Dwarves seemed so discomfited as to be offended by Thranduil’s liberality, but that was their affair.  They were still quite proud, but none were so foolish as to refuse his gifts. 


Many of the displaced inhabitants of Dale overwintered in the Wood.  Thranduil was still wary of the dragon, and the longer it remained unseen and unheard inside the Mountain the better he liked it.  When spring came again and still the beast did not emerge, he was finally willing to allow his people to risk the open road.


His messengers returned with representatives from Esgaroth, the village on the lakeshore.  The Men had conceived a plan to expand the place into a proper town to accommodate all those who did not care to return to the half-ruined city of Dale.  They showed him a plan they had drawn of a thriving city upon the lake mounted on great pylons.  The difficulty lay in acquiring the lumber necessary for such an undertaking. 


Impressed, Thranduil agreed to provide all the wood they may require, and in return he accepted preferential treatment in all future trade the Woodland Realm would conduct through that city.  Large swaths of the recently corrupted forest were cleared, places where the trees were not yet so sickened as to be useless.  At the same time, the effort thinned the forest on the hostile border, making any attack easier to observe. 


Great barges piled high with logs seemed to crowd the waterways for quite some time.  Those Elves who wished to volunteer their labor and their time were permitted to accompany the barges and help with the building.  Thus, the new city on the lake was completed more quickly than the architects had anticipated, and was ready to house its citizens by the time the first snows fell.  King Thranduil was informed by the grateful Master of Esgaroth that there would be a place of honor ever ready for him in the great hall should he choose to visit.


Thranduil was genuinely pleased by the success of the endeavor, and he appreciated the mettle of those Men who were determined to live their lives in the dragon’s shadow.  He was glad to see them stay.  The Dwarvish kingdom and all its riches may be lost, but it was no bad thing to still have a privileged relationship with the most influential center of trade in the region.


Perhaps he would visit Esgaroth one day, but now he was sorely needed on his own borders.  The dark things of Mirkwood seemed emboldened by the presence of the dragon and were pressing their advantage.  He had a great deal of grim work to do before he could risk another pleasure cruise downriver. 




Chapter 38 - To Resist Despair





Gandalf shoved open Durin’s Gate from the inside and stumbled out of Moria into the dazzlingly bright daylight.  He pulled the brim of his hat lower over his eyes and cursed the physical body he was forced to wander in, not for the first time.  He had sent a sparrow to relay his message to Radagast, an eagle to Saruman, and he had spoken to the sentries on the borders of Lothlórien to summon the Lady before he had passed under the mountains.  The White Council must reconvene immediately.


It was a long and weary march north along the course of the Bruinen, but at last he found the subtle paths which led him into the hidden valley and to Imladris.  News of his arrival quickly came to Lord Elrond, who appeared at the top of the stairs before Gandalf and his escort reached the front door.


“Mithrandir!”  He greeted him warmly, spreading his arms in welcome.  “I had heard that you were returning in haste from some business in the south, and I hoped you would stop by and share the news with us.”


“It is not good news, I fear, my lord,” Gandalf admitted, and Elrond’s smile quickly faded.  “First, we must summon Lord Círdan and the other members of the Council.  I have sent word to Radagast, Saruman, and Lady Galadriel.  We have urgent matters to discuss.”  He grimaced and shifted where he stood.  “And while you are doing that, I would be ever so grateful to put my feet up somewhere and have a bite to eat.  The northern road seems to lengthen each time I walk it.”


“Say no more, my friend,” Elrond assured him.  “I shall leave you in Lindir’s capable hands and personally attend our other business.  We shall not speak of it again until we are all gathered.”


The amenities on offer in Elrond’s House did a great deal to restore his strength, but Gandalf was still greatly troubled in mind.  He was plagued by an urgency he could not satisfy, not until he had laid the facts of the matter before the Council.  He could not succeed alone, not this time.  He found it difficult to rest, though he forced himself to sleep and occasionally to meditate in the gardens.  The thought of what was moving in the wide lands beyond that enchanted valley haunted him, the perils and threats faced by the good people of Middle-earth while he sat in comfort and did nothing.  It seemed he had been doing little better than nothing for many years.  Now he was ready and determined to act, and he was confident his peers would join him.  After all, that was the entire purpose of the White Council. 


The other members gradually began to arrive just as he felt the idleness would drive him mad.  Glorfindel and Gildor were already present.  Lady Galadriel came in company with Radagast, Círdan rode in from the havens, and finally Saruman arrived from his distant home in Gondor.  With a great effort, Gandalf contained his impatience as they all took a formal dinner together and then at last gathered in secrecy.  All the servants and other members of Lord Elrond’s household withdrew for the night lest anything be overheard.


“Well come and well met once again, my friends,” Elrond began in the full moonlight, officially opening the proceedings.  “But, as Mithrandir arrived with great urgency and has been waiting with ever thinning patience, I shall not waste our time with further pleasantries.  Please, Mithrandir, tell us what troubles you.”


“It is once again the Necromancer of Mirkwood who troubles me,” Gandalf said, standing to address the assembly.  “He fled too quickly the first time I challenged him, appearing to fear discovery.  When he returned to Dol Guldur after the peace, his spirit was much more virulent.  I could no longer believe him to be merely a Man, some nameless sorcerer as we formerly supposed.  I have been to Dol Guldur again by stealthier means, to observe rather than to challenge, and at last I have seen the Necromancer as he truly is, stripped of all disguise and semblance.  He is indeed Sauron, our great enemy of old!  I knew him, and he knew me.  I was fortunate to escape his servants and his stronghold with my life.”


“This is ill news, indeed!” Glorfindel said.  “How can we have been so blind to his return?  He must be firmly entrenched by now.”


“Often the incremental growth of a shadow can seem insignificant until it is too large to be ignored,” Gandalf observed, “and he has been at great pains to disguise himself.  But, if we move quickly, there is hope that we may rout him.  The One Ring is still lost, and without it Sauron has not his former strength.  I believe a concentrated assault by this council upon Dol Guldur could throw it down and again cripple its master.” 


“Calm yourself, Gandalf,” Saruman interjected.  “Let us proceed with wisdom and not rash judgment.  Let us consider what may be gained before we rush headlong into the east to destroy Dol Guldur.”


There was something snide about Saruman’s tone which irritated Gandalf, and as he considered past events, he realized it had always been Saruman who had dismissed Dol Guldur as a serious concern.  “Is that not our purpose in gathering here?” Gandalf asked curtly.  “You cannot possibly believe even now that we should do nothing.”


Saruman leveled a dark look upon him.  “You have ever been inclined to impetuous action, Gandalf,” he said, “forever meddling here and there in distant lands, stirring up trouble where there need be none.  You tell us the Necromancer is Sauron, but you also confirm that he is but a shadow of his former self.  He will never fully recover without the One Ring, and yet while the Ring exists he cannot be destroyed.  It was almost certainly lost in the Anduin at the dawn of the age, and has since been taken to the Sea.  Let him sit in Dol Guldur and pursue his fruitless search.  Why should we unnecessarily stir him from his hold only to lose him in the vast wastes of Middle-earth?  Better to leave our defeated enemy where he can be easily contained, where we can observe him.”


“But is he contained?”  A thousand objections rose at once in Gandalf’s mind, a thousand voices of aggrieved people who were suffering and dying beneath Dol Guldur’s tyranny day by day.  “Is he defeated?  I believe the Elves of Mirkwood would object strenuously to that assumption.  King Thranduil has been spending all his strength year upon year against that darkness with precious little thanks or assistance from any of us.  I hardly think he would consider our action against Dol Guldur to be unnecessary.”


“Thranduil chose his part long ago,” Saruman insisted, “and by now he surely knows best how to go about it.  Were we to overthrow Dol Guldur on his account, Sauron would only flee to some other land inhabited by people much less capable of opposing him.”


The words burned in Gandalf’s ears.  He had seen the toll the long defeat was taking on the woodland king, and he did not appreciate Saruman’s flippant tone.  He had seen the proud tears glinting in Thranduil’s eyes as he had embraced the unspeakable relief of the Watchful Peace.  He had seen him not two months ago, worn by the effort of defending their ever-shrinking realm against the spread of Sauron’s corruption.  Radagast had seen how the Dark Lord would often ensnare the mind of the weary king in brutally intimate battles of will which Thranduil was ill-qualified to fight, but which he endured with a desolate and hopeless courage which might inspire sympathy in even the hardest heart.  Saruman had seen none of that.  Saruman had seen Thranduil only once more than a thousand years ago and had dismissed him out of hand, a lesser son of greater sires, a foregone casualty of war.


Many bitter words rose to Gandalf’s tongue, accusations, suspicions, even blunt insults, but he clenched his teeth rather than release such bile against a superior in mixed company.  The other members of the council had not yet had a chance to speak, enthralled by the growing confrontation they were witnessing.  Rather than escalate the hostilities, Gandalf turned away and stalked to the shadowy edge of the patio, whipped out his pipe and set it alight.  He sat there for the remainder of the meeting, smoking furiously but saying nothing as his proposal was argued back and forth for several hours.  Galadriel, Glorfindel, and Radagast were of his mind and debated the point at length, but Saruman would not be swayed.  As usual, the elder wizard’s position seemed measured and reasonable, cold and utterly heartless though it seemed to Gandalf. 


When at last the council was dismissed, not long before dawn, it had been decided that they should once again observe and do nothing, at least for the moment.  Half of them were keenly dissatisfied with that outcome, but the possibility remained to reconsider the issue at a later date. 


Saruman approached him in the dark as the others dispersed.  “Why did you not join in the discussion?” he demanded.  “How are we to have fruitful debate if you insist upon sitting in the dark and choking us all in your infernal smoke?”


Gandalf indulged in a few more enormous puffs of pipesmoke, not displeased to see that it was irritating Saruman.  “The Halfling’s leaf gives me patience,” he said stiffly, “something I seem to need a great deal of at present.”  He stood and lowered his voice severely.  “We were sent here to oppose Sauron.  Not to tolerate him, not to observe him, but to help the valiant people of Middle-earth to conquer him.  I accepted your reluctance to move against Dol Guldur before, but now one might begin to suspect you of unseemly motivations.” 


“A fool’s assumption,” Saruman said contemptuously.  “Your impulsive haste has clearly deranged your judgment.  You forget your place.”


“I know my place very well,” Gandalf insisted.  “It is beside the brave of this world who are willing to fight evil when they see it.  Perhaps it is you who have forgotten.  Is it your intention to leave Sauron unchallenged until he has succeeded in gathering all the great rings?”


“He will never succeed in gathering them all,” Saruman insisted.  “Several are lost beyond hope, and none of them will matter if he cannot regain the One.  Set your mind at rest and stop clouding it with this noxious fume.”


Recognizing the futility of the conversation, Gandalf blew a series of defiant smoke rings and seized them in his fist before Saruman’s face, a mute accusation of a half-formed suspicion.  Whether Saruman interpreted it as such or not, he sneered and took his leave.  Was he, Saruman the White, first among the Istari, forming his own designs upon the One Ring?  The idea was absurd, yet there it was. 


Gandalf sat alone, absorbed in thought, oblivious to the passing time.  The jagged ridge of the eastern horizon had just begun to take on a rosy glow when he looked up to see Lady Galadriel beside him.  A glance in the opposite direction confirmed that Lord Elrond had come as well.  It was to be a meeting of the secret council within the council, so intimate that only a handful of individuals in all Middle-earth knew of its existence, a meeting of the Ringbearers.


“So,” Galadriel began grimly, “it seems Sauron crept back into the world almost two thousand years ago, quietly, subtlety, as he is wont, unbeknownst to any of us.”


“Someone knew,” Elrond reminded them with a regretful frown. 


“Yes,” Gandalf agreed darkly, “and now it seems we owe him much more than an apology, though the fault is not entirely ours.  It was exceptionally cruel to show himself to Oropherion while dissembling to the rest of us.  What was Thranduil to do?”


“A predator will seek first the weakest prey,” Elrond said. 


“Yes, but this prey has proven difficult to swallow,” Gandalf observed.  “In fact, I believe he has choked on it.  Thranduil may not have any of the great rings to aid him, but he has found a strength in him that sometimes beggars belief.” 


“It must have been a bitterly lonely task,” Galadriel said with keen sympathy, “standing alone all those years, unable to turn to any of us.  We assumed he was still haunted by his fears and memories of Mordor, until at last he stopped asking to be believed.”


Gandalf sighed.  “What is done is done, regrettable though it may be.  I will not defy the will of the council, but I have not spoken my last of assaulting Dol Guldur.  I must find some way to turn the delay to our advantage, and to aid the good King of Greenwood in whatever way I can.”


Galadriel smiled warmly.  “Go to him, Mithrandir,” she agreed.  “The Three may not reveal themselves, but Thranduil may yet benefit from them.  It was with extraordinary foresight that Círdan gave the Ring of Fire into your keeping with its power to resist despair and rekindle courage.  I would be very surprised if you have not already exercised its virtues upon the Woodland King in the past.”


Gandalf declined to answer directly, though he gave her a wan smile in return.  “I may have done, my lady,” he confessed.


“There you go, meddling again,” Elrond said in jest, finally smiling himself.  “Yes, go, Mithrandir, with the blessing of all the Three, and impart to Thranduil whatever strength Narya may bestow.”


“And by all means tell him he is vindicated,” Galadriel insisted.  “If such a festering injustice may not be wholly righted, at least it can be acknowledged.”


“I will tell him,” Gandalf promised.  “Such vindication may in fact do him more good than all the rings in this world.”



 



 

It had been more than eighty years since the dragon had descended upon Erebor, but after the first few decades he had stopped appearing as often in the open air, and his occasional raids on the ruin of Dale had all but ceased.  The Dragon Watch had not had anything to report for quite some time, which was all to the good because the evils of Mirkwood had not allowed the King sufficient time to concern himself with the dragon and his doings. 


The border at the river was holding, but not for lack of challenges.  Unwilling to surrender another foot of ground, Thranduil defended it as though each battle were his last stand.  It was a demanding task, and it had not failed to cross his mind that his enemy might be taking advantage of his jealous fervor to deliberately prod him into exhaustion.  The alternative, however, was to simply allow Sauron to take what he wanted, and so was no alternative at all. 


He had returned to the caverns only twice in the past three seasons, and had been on continuous campaign for longer than he cared to remember.  The spiders were multiplying out of all control, and roving bands of Orcs and Warg riders had been probing the marches for weaknesses.  The western road through Mirkwood was proving difficult to maintain, and Thranduil had made a point of riding the length of it himself at least once each month to maintain his hold on it.  His soldiers and woodland scouts were performing extremely well, but there was something especially efficacious about the King’s personal presence which no amount of bravery on their part could replicate. 


They had just succeeded in killing a large number of spiders who had dared attempt to cross the river.  As the carcasses were gathered for burning, Thranduil sat down against the trunk of a weathered beech tree and closed his eyes for the first time in far too long.  He could not continue at this pace.  He was hungry, he had scarcely slept for several months, and it seemed he lived in his armor.  He thought what a relief it would be to finally shed it.


And then, just as he imagined it, he felt his armor was gone, but not pleasantly so.  Now his spirit was naked beneath the harsh scrutiny of the Lord of Dol Guldur.  It was the same sickening presence he endured each day, but now he could see it.  He knew he was dreaming, but even in sleep he could have no rest, forced to stand in the malevolent glare of Sauron’s hatred and impatience.  Unable to avoid it, Thranduil turned the situation as well as he could, adopting a defiant air which further irritated his enemy.  As if in answer, a vision unfolded before his eyes, a vision of the foul breath of Dol Guldur sweeping into the north and leaving in its wake a bloody ruin of slain soldiers pierced with cruel arrows.  Thranduil recognized the tortured bodies of Legolas and Tauriel among them.


That shocked him awake, and once again Thranduil found himself sitting beneath the tree in full armor while a heap of dead spiders burned behind him.  He did not know how to interpret that brief dream.  Was it a spiteful fantasy, or had he glimpsed his enemy’s mind?  It was not a threat he was prepared to tolerate.  He was on his feet again immediately. 


“Galadhmir!” he called urgently, striding through the foul smoke.  “What news have we had of the Prince and Captain Tauriel?”


Lord Galadhmir looked up from his place beside the pyre and frowned.  “None, my lord,” he said.  “I thought you were finally sleeping.”


“What was their last position?” Thranduil demanded, ignoring the rest.


Galadhmir seemed reluctant to answer, and the dubious look on his face told Thranduil a great deal about how haggard he must appear.  “They were south of the river’s fork,” he said at last.  “Why?”


Thranduil turned to collect his horse, but Galadhmir hurried after him.  “My lord, wait!” he called, catching up to him.  “Thranduil, stop this,” he growled in a more familiar voice.  “You need to rest, eat.  Legolas knows his business.  You are no good to us half alive.”


Thranduil obliged him only by snatching the waybread out of his hand and tearing off a piece with his teeth.  He untied his horse from the picket line as his Guardsmen appeared beside him and did the same.  “I will take our forces east to the fork,” Thranduil told Galadhmir, “leaving you a third of their number to secure this place.”  Behind them, Commander Dorthaer called the soldiers to muster again.  “If my fears prove unfounded, I promise I shall return home for as long as I may.”


Galadhmir sighed curtly.  “I shall hold you to that, brother.”


Thranduil mounted and his guard formed around him.  When the soldiers were ready, he turned his horse and led them eastward along the course of the river. 


In a matter of hours they had reached the fork where the enchanted waters of the cursed stream flowed into the Forest River.  As he rode, Thranduil tried to understand what the trees were attempting to tell him.  The wood was calling to him as it often did when there was danger afoot, but the intention was confused.  He listened as closely as he could and finally discerned that the younger trees were calling for him, but it was the older ones that were conflicted, some even seeming to warn him away.  Birds flew overhead, calling in alarm, complaining of intruders.  That was always a bad sign.


Thranduil led his soldiers south at a cautious pace, not certain what they would meet.  He could feel Legolas was somewhere near, and they soon encountered his sentries.  “My King,” the first among them said as they all bowed low over their weapons, “we did not expect to receive you here.” 


“Circumstances have obliged me to change my course,” Thranduil explained.  “Where is Prince Legolas?”


“My lord the Prince is even now preparing to send a rider to you, my lord,” the sentry answered.  “You will find him in the guardhouse.”


They entered the camp and dismounted in the clearing.  As half the royal guard secured the horses, Dorthaer opened the guardhouse door to announce the King’s arrival and nearly collided with both Legolas and a ready courier.  Not unpleasantly surprised, Legolas relieved the courier of the letter and instructed him to return to his regular post. 


“I was just prepared to send word to you, my lord,” Legolas explained, greeting his father with a proper bow before turning aside for a moment to toss the sealed paper into the campfire.  “What turn of good fortune has brought you to us now?”


“I am not so certain it is good fortune at all,” Thranduil admitted, “but I am gratified to see you well.”  He waved to his guard to follow at a distance.  “Walk with me.”


“I was going to tell you that I suspect something is brewing near us,” Legolas explained, walking alongside him toward the forward positions.  “Somewhere to the southeast, if I had to hazard a guess.  The animals have been disturbed, and the birds have fled.”


“Yes, we saw them on the way,” Thranduil said.  “I have my own reasons for thinking you are quite correct.  Recall your scouts, all but the first rank, and prepare them for battle.  These Orc raids are becoming quite tiresome, but should not be anything we cannot handle.”  Still the silent dread was growing on his mind, an urgent warning he did not entirely understand.  “Where is Tauriel?” he asked.


“She is commanding the first rank of scouts,” Legolas told him, a look in his eye which expected his father would not be pleased by that answer.


He was right, but it would be extremely improper for the King to show blatant favoritism among his soldiers.  Tauriel had chosen her part and earned the right to face her peril with the rest of them.  Still, there was something about it all which made Thranduil especially uneasy.  He was certain that some malicious enemy was approaching, but it did not feel like an entire army or anything like the magnitude of those threats they had repulsed in the past.  What could be so deeply unsettling about a roving band of Orcs?  He shook it off, tempted to attribute the confusion to his fatigue and general disquiet.  “Alert your troop,” he said, dismissing Legolas to his duties.  “Form the line here.”


Legolas obeyed at once, leaving Thranduil alone in the disarray of his thoughts.  Seeking to clear his mind, Thranduil closed his eyes and drew a deep breath, searching for a moment of calm before the next storm broke. 


He felt it before he saw it, an irresistible spasm of instinct, premonition, and memory.  He opened his eyes, drew his sword, and stepped aside all in the same moment, and a vicious downward stroke ended both the Warg and its rider as they leapt at him, their broken bodies tumbling in pieces into the camp.


It took a single breath for the bystanders to realize what was happening, and by then the King was already forced to give ground, slashing apart the vanguard as they boiled out of the darkness.  Thranduil pivoted sharply to meet the next attack, but now they were too many and a Warg slammed him to the ground even as he stabbed it to death.  Others swarmed on top of him with their riders in a horrific tangle, all howling for his blood, daggers and teeth glancing off his armor, but Thranduil bucked them off.  His guard threw themselves into the fray and a furious battle was joined.  The Elves tried to form a circle, but there were too many Orcs rushing at them at once.  Other soldiers came running from their posts, but they were still outnumbered, thrust aside and ensnared in close combat of their own while greater numbers of the enemy bore down on their King.


Thranduil fought desperately, beginning to realize that his death or capture was the sole objective of the attack.  He had been very effectively separated from his guard and the noose was tightening.  Locked in battle with the Orcs in front of him, he could do nothing as another threw a weighted rope around his leg and tried to pull him off his feet.  He severed the rope, but still more were thrown about him as he was hemmed in on all sides, and he was finally dragged to the ground like a baited bear.  Thranduil clawed away, pulling several of his captors with him, slashing at the tangle of ropes with his dagger. 


An enormous Orc seized him by the arm, and Thranduil plunged his blade into its neck just as the Orc slammed their heads together.  Stunned, Thranduil felt his body hit the ground, and he was immediately swarmed.  An iron shackle closed around his wrist before he returned to his senses.  The thought of being dragged alive to Dol Guldur drove him mad with fear, and he thrashed and kicked and punched with all his might. 


A blessedly familiar horn sounded in the trees, and dozens of long arrows began slamming into the Orcs from all sides. 



 



 

Legolas and Tauriel ran back with as many archers as they had been able to recall, and they immediately fanned out and rained a hail of shafts on the beasts who were assaulting the King.  Now the Orcs were yowling in pain and confusion as the tide was turned, but everyone’s blood froze as a hideous shrieking split the night.  The deafening sound seemed to halt time itself in a single excruciating moment.


Three wraiths, cowled in black, emerged from the trees brandishing dark swords.  The archers hesitated, and Legolas signaled them to hold.  He was not certain whether it would be wise to try shooting at them, and so he waited for some direction from his father.  Another jarring scream cowed the entire field for another drawn moment.


“King Oropherion,” the first of them rasped in its thin, undead voice, “our master bids thee come.” 


Thranduil hauled himself up on one knee amid the wreck of the dead.  He was beaten and disheveled, black and red with blood, with even half a pair of shackles and a chain hanging off his arm, but he was not yet defeated.  “Your master has no power over me,” he said contemptuously.


Legolas and the archers were ready, though unsure.  The King was wounded and unarmed, and the wraiths continued to advance.  Seeming to realize the folly of attempting to take him alive, they screamed again and rushed at him with their swords.


Scores of arrows were released at the same moment, but the archers would never know whether they found their mark.  There was a blinding flash and a tremendous clap like a thunderbolt, and everyone was thrown to the ground by the force of it.  When they all scrambled upright again, they saw everything as it was before, except that the black cowls were lying empty.  Thranduil had both hands planted firmly on the ground, still glowing with fading light, exhausted after the effort such a release of power had required.


Legolas went immediately to his father’s side while the others began the grim task of recovering the other wounded.  Tauriel joined him there, her concern evident on her face.  “Can you stand, my lord?” she asked.


In answer, Thranduil grasped the hand Legolas offered and fought his way onto his feet, though he was obviously in a great deal of pain.  A glance around the glade confirmed that all six of his guards were either severely wounded or dead, a realization which seemed to grieve him more than his own wounds.  He gently pushed Legolas and Tauriel aside and limped toward the fallen figure of Garavorn.


Garavorn, Legolas knew, was one of Oropher’s veterans who had lived his whole life in service to the Kings of Greenwood.  He reached up to his King now with his good hand, the other mangled and broken.  His face was ashen, but still he managed to smile.  “Farewell, my lord,” he said with his last breath.  “I shall bear your love to the Queen.” 


Legolas looked away, turning Tauriel with him, allowing the bitter moment to pass in some modicum of privacy.  It seemed to him that death came too near his father too often, and when it failed to take him it took those near him.  Legolas’ own grief again mingled with a dark hatred of the Necromancer who inflicted all this needless misery upon them.  How much longer must they endure it?  He was justifiably proud of his father, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to watch as Thranduil was left to struggle on alone.  Where were the wise and powerful ones of the world who might throw down Dol Guldur if only they tried?  Tauriel began to put her arm around him, but then seemed to think better of it.  Instead, they turned back to take the King in hand.


Thranduil was by no means mortally wounded, but he looked and clearly felt wretched.  Tauriel took charge of his care and of all the wounded.  His brow was split to the bone, and his hair was matted thick with blood.  They carefully removed his armor to reveal several glancing stab wounds at the weak points, and two particularly deep ones in his leg.  He had been savagely bitten and clawed, though the ugly scars on his armor spoke to many worse wounds he had been spared.  The offensive chain on his wrist could not be removed right away, and he was obliged to suffer it until they could acquire the necessary tools. 


More worrying than the King’s physical injuries was his state of mind.  He did not seem entirely present, and his eyes were distant.  Radagast came racing north, too late to warn them or to be of any assistance, but he did offer to secure the borders himself for a time to give the King an opportunity to unburden his mind, an offer Thranduil curtly accepted.  As soon as he was rested enough to ride, the King returned to the caverns where Legolas suspected he would disappear into his chambers for a very long time. 


Legolas remained with his uncle, Lord Galadhmir, and together they held the area and oversaw the burying of the dead.  They were both of the opinion that the King was sorely overworked and overtaxed, and that this most recent outrage had nearly tried him too far.  The solitude may do him a great deal of good, but they must see that it did not run too deep nor go on too long.



 



 

On the way back to the palace, Thranduil and his escort discreetly stopped at the home of one of the more renowned smiths in the forest to have the stubborn shackle removed from his wrist.  He was quick to oblige the King, and began the laborious process of sawing through the heavy pin which held it together. 


Thranduil tried not to tremble, but the iron’s touch was abhorrent and he wanted it off him immediately.  He did not feel like himself, as though something deep within him would finally break if he could not have a moment’s peace without someone threatening to hurt him, haunt him, bereave or kill him.  His patience was spent.  He was spent.  He swallowed the urge to demand the smith work faster, but it was all he could do to endure the interminable sawing until at last the pin snapped and he could pull his hand free.


Returning to the caverns in joyless triumph, Thranduil retired at once to the depths of his chambers and would suffer none to enter but Gwaelas and Noruvion.  Between the two of them, he had his wounds tended and his other needs addressed. 


Food, peace, and copious amounts of wine could only do so much to restore his spirit.  Even the Dorwinion could not quite blunt his agitation.  After so long, he felt he had nothing left to give.  He resented the hopeless war, he resented his solitude, he resented being made to hate the life he had once loved so much.  If he must wake each day to a world of loneliness, abuse, and torment, he began to wonder why he should want to wake at all. 


He did not know how long he stayed there, hiding from his duties, his enemies, even his family and friends.  He spent much of his time lying in bed in the dark, attempting to sleep but more often brooding miserably.  He was not making a concerted effort to heal himself, because that, of course, required effort.  He did not truly want to die, but neither was he entirely ready to begin living again.  He might have been dourly content to linger in that shadow on the edge of madness for quite some time had he not been rudely interrupted.


He knew who it was before the knock sounded on his door.  “I recall making it very clear that I did not wish to be disturbed,” Thranduil said darkly as the door egregiously opened without his leave.  He had only just managed to drown his woes in Dorwinion, and now they had come to dredge them up again.


“Forgive me, my lord,” Gwaelas said, seeming to realize he was caught between two titanic forces he could not contain.  “He would not be dissuaded.”


“Thranduil!”  Mithrandir stormed into the dark chamber and immediately slammed his staff on the floor, flooding the place with thin blue light.  “I hear you have been indulging in this absurd behavior quite long enough.  Pull yourself together!”


Thranduil continued to sit petulantly over his wine for a long moment before finally obliging the wizard by allowing the lamps to gently flare up again.  Gwaelas quietly took his leave.


Momentarily satisfied, Mithrandir extinguished his staff.  He unabashedly looked Thranduil up and down with a critical eye, then helped himself to a seat at the table opposite the King.  “Now,” he grumbled, also presumptuously decanting another portion of wine, “what have you been doing to yourself?”


Thranduil nearly choked.  “What have I been doing?” he demanded, offended by the question.  “I have been enduring a great deal of punishment trying to keep myself and my people alive.  What have you been doing?”


Mithrandir sighed wearily, seeming not to resent the accusation as much as Thranduil had expected.  “I have been very busy but have not accomplished very much,” he admitted.  “I have been again to Dol Guldur.”


Thranduil sat up with grim new interest.  “Yes?”


Mithrandir met his gaze with a deep look of sympathy, remorse, and even humbled pride.  “I saw him, too,” he said simply.  “I saw Sauron.”


Thranduil’s own pride notwithstanding, he felt himself wilt a bit as the lonely burden of that knowledge was lifted.  It was an ineffable relief to know that he would no longer be obliged to humor that farce the “Necromancer” had woven around himself.


“Yes, Oropherion, we must all now admit that your intuition was quite correct,” Mithrandir continued.  “Lady Galadriel and Lord Elrond especially wished that I convey their regrets to you.  Of course, I immediately went to Imladris to share my discovery with the rest of the White Council, and it was my considered opinion that if we moved as one, we could force Sauron from his hold.”


“And what was decided?”  An unexpected glimmer of hope was growing in Thranduil’s heart where a moment ago there had been only black melancholy.  To be vindicated before the rest of Elvendom was indeed very satisfying, but to finally be relieved of the curse of Dol Guldur would be the greatest happiness they could imagine east of the Sea.  “Will they come?”


Mithrandir’s downcast expression smothered that hope before it had a chance to truly live.  “They will not,” he said flatly.  “Many were in favor, but Saruman believes it would be better to leave Sauron where he is for the present, and that you with all your experience are best qualified to contain him.”


Thranduil simply stared at him in stunned disbelief, unable to coalesce his inner maelstrom of exasperation, outrage, and despair into a coherent reply.  Instead, he seized his wine glass and drank its entire contents at once.


The wizard’s empathetic manner hardened somewhat, and he narrowed his eyes.  “Yes, I have heard that is the best way to savor fine wine,” he said dryly.  “Past the tongue and straight to the gullet.”


Thranduil glared at him.  “The Wise have abandoned me here to die, and in the same breath they would criticize my drinking habits?”


Considering his reply, Mithrandir unexpectedly shrugged and finally partook from his own glass.  He spat it out again unceremoniously.  “Ai, that is vile,” he said.  “Far too sweet.”


“It was imported at great expense from the Sea of Rhûn,” Thranduil observed severely, daring the wizard to waste it.


Resigned, Mithrandir took another tactful sip out of deference to his host, though he clearly thought no better of it. 


Thranduil sighed and poured himself another glass, knowing he should stop soon but not certain that he would.  “I suppose I should appreciate Saruman’s confidence in my abilities,” he said wryly, “not that there is anything in our history to inspire it.”


“That seems unjustly harsh,” Mithrandir protested.


“Oh, yes?”  Thranduil frowned.  “Perhaps you can name for me a single war the house of Oropher has undertaken and won.”


The wizard glowered at him.  “Enough of that, now,” he admonished.  “Self-pity never profits anyone.  Put that down,” he continued, boldly snatching the glass out of Thranduil’s hand, “have your wounds attended, and heal yourself.  I shall enjoy your hospitality until I can see you on your feet again, and then I wish to speak at length.  I have a great many things to explain to you before I go, and I would like to be certain you will remember them in the morning.”


Over the next few days, Thranduil endeavored to take Mithrandir’s advice.  He had been roused from his crippling wretchedness against his will, but he was not entirely sorry.  His wounds healed quickly now that he bothered to address them, and he was soon fit to resume his duties.  The future seemed no brighter, but somehow he was again prepared to face it.


On the third day, Mithrandir requested that the King ride with him past the hills and along the river into the eastern meadowlands.  It seemed a strange request, but such a ride was not an unpleasant prospect after spending so long underground, so Thranduil agreed. 


Mithrandir largely kept his thoughts to himself as they rode the rambling trail toward the edge of the forest.  Thranduil was surprised by how beneficial the exercise seemed despite having no conversation.  It was refreshing to be on horseback again, and just being in the wizard’s presence was profoundly calming.  Thranduil’s guard followed at a decorous distance, unwilling to let him wander without them considering recent events, wizard or no wizard. 


When they emerged into the sunlight and beheld the rippling waves of meadow grass, it was indeed a beautiful sight.  Thranduil was content to sit his horse and enjoy the view, but Mithrandir slipped him a sly look and spurred his mount to greater speed.  Thranduil moved to keep pace, but Mithrandir pulled away again until they were both flying over the vast green expanse at a truly unjustifiable speed, racing headlong toward no place in particular.  It was so simple, and yet it was the most deeply cathartic thing Thranduil had done in a very long time.


At last, Mithrandir turned them back toward the west in a wide circle and gradually slowed to a walk.  Both horses were heaving and snorting and glad of the respite.  The Wood filled the horizon, the stark border of Mirkwood clearly demarcated against the greener reaches of Thranduil’s domain in the north. 


“Surely that is an inspiring sight,” Mithrandir ventured with a gentle smile.


“I suppose that depends upon your point of view,” Thranduil answered despondently.  “Perhaps you see an enduring sanctuary of Elvendom in a darkening world, but I see a vast ruined waste that once was ours.”


Mithrandir frowned.  “That is a very severe way of looking at it,” he said.  “The corruption of Mirkwood cannot be blamed on any failure of yours.”


“Nonetheless, it is difficult to not feel like a failure when I seem foredoomed to a slow and agonizing defeat,” Thranduil admitted, brutally honest.  His guard had drawn up to await them beside the river, and they moved to fall into line once again behind them.  “My people are diminished, my realm is withered to a fraction of the legacy my father left me, and my reign seems fated to end exactly as it began, in shame and ruin.”  He sighed deeply, feeling the melancholy creeping back.  “Everything my house has ever attempted ends in shame and ruin.  It is the common refrain of our lives, and Sauron was not wrong to have observed it.”


“Oh, stop talking such rot,” Mithrandir protested, a note of genuine emotion beneath his irritable tone.  “I absolutely forbid you to despair.  Great deeds are rarely comfortable ones, Oropherion.  Yes, you will be sorely tried, abused without consideration, tormented without mercy, made to shoulder burdens enough to crush a lesser man.”  He paused and turned to him with a softer look that seemed almost paternal.  “But you are strong, Thranduil,” he insisted gently, “and your reign is glorious.”


That statement struck Thranduil in a surprisingly vulnerable place, and he felt long dormant emotions seeping back into the jaded places of his heart like a spring thaw.


“Do not dwell any longer on the humiliations of your house,” Mithrandir admonished him.  “Can you not see that your valor has redeemed them?  How many others can claim to have challenged the immortal powers in single combat?  Fëanor, Fingolfin, Fingon, Finrod, Beren and Lúthien, Ecthelion and Glorfindel, Gil-galad and Elendil?  Thranduil has earned his place among them.”  Then he smiled.  “Being defeated is no shame,” he assured him.  “Indeed, you are the only one who has not yet been killed by the endeavor.”


Thranduil scoffed quietly and returned the weary smile, appreciating his grim humor. 


“Suffering is like a fire,” Mithrandir continued brusquely, turning back to look ahead.  “We can either allow it to consume us, or we can let it forge us into heroes.  This world will need many heroes if it is to overcome the darkness, but at this moment it especially needs one exactly where you are now.  I am not surprised that Sauron is more determined than ever to be rid of you.  If he could seduce Smaug the dragon into his service, they would be a formidable force, indeed.  With Dale and Erebor overthrown, the only obstacles to his complete dominion in Rhovanion are Thranduil and the Men of Laketown.”  He glanced aside again with a knowing expression.  “Meaning no slight to those fine fishermen, I imagine you can appreciate your importance in that consideration.  So, you will oblige me very much by staying alive.”


A wry expression passed across Thranduil’s features, though his mood was improving too much for him to be truly irritated.  It still amazed him how completely the balance of power shifted in Mithrandir’s presence, as though his years and his crown were of no more consequence than a schoolboy’s accolades.  It only confirmed his old suspicion that the wizard was truly more than he would seem, with an authority rooted beyond their world.  If this was the subtle way in which the Powers had chosen to exercise their custodianship of Middle-earth, he would respect it.  “I shall endeavor not to disappoint you on that score,” he said at last.


“Yes, see that you do.  And buck up, Thranduil,” Mithrandir said, unexpectedly prodding him in the shoulder with the tip of his staff.  “The fate of the world is turning, and this is your moment.  You have not lingered on through all these ages to falter in the last hour.  The blood of Oropher may yet have a great part to play in the downfall of Sauron.  At any rate, you have proven his irreverent tenacity and mulish pride to be assets after all.”


“I am certain he would appreciate the compliment,” Thranduil said with a twisted smile, “once he overlooked the indignity of it.”


“And so he should,” Mithrandir agreed haughtily.  He drew his horse to a halt in the windblown grass and smiled again, though the pleasant expression had a hard edge.  “Your task is simple, my lord, though by no means easy.  Hold what is yours, frustrate the contrivances of evil in whatever way you can, keep order in the north, and be ready.  I believe the greatest clash is yet to come, and I need to know that Thranduil’s realm will hold.”


Thranduil nodded gravely.  “It will hold,” he said.  “Although, any assistance in that endeavor will not go unappreciated.”


“We shall see about that,” Mithrandir said charily, urging his horse on again.  “I have not abandoned my designs against Dol Guldur, but there are many things I must see to before I bring it before the Council again.  That dragon is a worry.  We must be certain Sauron cannot call upon him at need.”


Thranduil turned a narrow look at him as the wizard quieted into the depths of his own thoughts.  “I sincerely hope you are not counting upon me to remove Smaug.  I will endure many things, but I have no desire to be roasted alive.”


“No, no, no,” the wizard assured him.  “That task will require more subtlety than any army can manage, however valiant.  No, that will be my quandary to solve.”


“I will not trouble you with my poor counsel,” Thranduil said, “if indeed I had any to give.  The sooner you work out how to remove him, the better I will like it.”


“No doubt, Oropherion.  You attend your obligations and I shall attend mine.”



Chapter 39 - The Fell Winter




Years passed, seasons came and seasons went, and no further word came of Mithrandir and his intrigues, or of the White Council, or of anything that moved in the world beyond Rhovanion.  Sauron remained unchallenged in his seat upon Dol Guldur despite his discovery, and Thranduil continued in his duty to defy him.  The dragon remained quiet inside Erebor, and made no move to threaten either Esgaroth or Eryn Galen.  Life seemed to have returned to that strange and uncomfortable equilibrium which so often characterized it, the nearest approximation of peace they could hope to enjoy while Mirkwood lasted.  Now winter had come again, just as it had ninety times since Mithrandir’s last departure. 


A bitter freeze struck the region much earlier than anticipated, conjuring up memories of the disastrous Long Winter they had endured two centuries before.  Thranduil tasked his lords and their wives with an urgent assessment of their entire realm—what remained of it—and their readiness to withstand a long and terrible winter if need be.  After a fortnight of inquiry, they were gathered in council to share their observations.


Thranduil sat in the King’s great chair at the head of the table in the council chamber, waiting patiently as the lords and ladies quietly arrived and took their places.  All the remaining Oropherionnath were once again gathered under the same roof, crowded together as their realm shrank.  It was not an unpleasant arrangement despite the circumstances, reminding them of earlier times. 


It had been too long since they had all gathered around the same table, pulled ever in their disparate directions as their duties required.  Now their borders had constricted to such a point that Thranduil no longer required his brothers to serve as regional governors.  Galadhmir’s idyllic city in the northwest had been overrun by the shadow, as had Anárion’s home in the south.  They were together again in a more intimate setting, facing their common purpose as they had in the beginning, as a family.


Thranduil held the silence even after they had all assembled, his thoughts drawn back over centuries.  In many ways it was like glimpsing the days of their youth through the ever-lengthening perspective of time, a moment to appreciate what they had become by remembering who they had been.  Linhir, Anárion and Menelwen, Galadhmir and Gwaelin, Noruvion, with empty chairs to recall Lindóriel and Illuiniel.  None of them was young anymore, and Thranduil had grown so accustomed to the weight of his responsibilities as patriarch that wearing the crown came as naturally as breathing.  More than ever, he wished to have all his family around him as they were slowly pressed toward a final confrontation with the evils of their day.  The Oropherionnath would need each other then, just as they had in the ruin of the Elder Days when they had first bound themselves to one another.


Last to arrive was Brilthor, former chieftain of the silvan Elves, privy as he was to all the doings of their Sindarin lords.  He took the place of honor at the opposite end of the table at Thranduil’s invitation, and they were finally able to proceed.


“I trust your inquiries have been fruitful,” Thranduil said to start.  “Anárion, tell me about our army.”


“Our soldiers are in good spirits, my lord,” Anárion confirmed.  “They are well provided for, and adequately armed.  Casualties continue to be few, which may largely be credited to their greater experience and skill, and to the silken reinforcement behind their armor.  Their numbers should be sufficient to defend the current borders.  The fletchers have been extremely productive, and I believe we have amassed a stockpile of arrows great enough to supply at least two major battles.”


“Excellent,” Thranduil said.  He waited a moment to allow Linhir to finish scribbling out his notes.  “What of the spiders?”


“The spiders continue to be a nuisance, trying the borders and certainly giving the forward ranks ample opportunity to earn their pay, but they have not been permitted to penetrate the interior.”


“Very well.”  Thranduil turned to the other side of the table.  “Galadhmir, tell me about our people beyond the hills.  Will they survive the winter?”


“I believe they will, my lord,” Galadhmir assured him with a cautious smile, “although they may have to consider rationing if the spring thaw does not come when expected.  The summer was quite bountiful, and all families seem well prepared despite how cold it has been already.  If the freeze does not break, however, the river will soon be iced and we will have to renegotiate our trade arrangements with Esgaroth.”


“I dare say we can imagine some alternatives,” Thranduil said.  “The Master of Esgaroth will not long tolerate any diminution of such profitable traffic.  Turning on that consideration, Noruvion, have we gathered adequate stores here?”


“The storerooms are full, my lord,” Noruvion replied.  “Barring disaster or blight, we should have plenty to outlast the winter.  But, as Galadhmir said, it would be prudent to consider rationing well before we exhaust our supplies should the spring be delayed.”


“After the Long Winter, I am inclined to agree.”  Fortunately, Thranduil knew their stockpiles consisted of more traditional fare than they had been constrained to live upon during the Days of Dearth, but they had indeed taken the precaution of preparing more of that horrid pine bark flour against the possibility of lean times to come.  His baser instinct would have been to dole it out first to any unfortunate alms-guests who might land at his gates during the bitter season, but ultimately he knew he would be among the first to voluntarily subsist on pine bread rather than starve those with weaker constitutions.  With any luck, it would not come to that.  “What of your own preparations?” he continued.  “Do you want for anything?”


“Nothing.  My apprentices and I were quite busy this year resupplying our apothecary.  All in all, I believe we may safely afford to sit back and comfortably shelter from whatever fury the winter may bring.”


Thranduil nodded, satisfied.  “Well and good for us,” he said, “but I will be very surprised if we are not called upon at some point to aid our less robust neighbors.  Let us not be too profligate with our hoarded bounties.”


“Yes, my lord,” they all agreed. 


“Be that as it may,” Anárion ventured to add with a lighthearted smile, “considering the cold, the soldiers have suggested that an increase in their wine ration would not go unappreciated.”


Thranduil laughed with the rest of them.  “That will depend upon those new arrangements we must make with Esgaroth,” he said, “but otherwise it does not seem an unreasonable request.”


The winter did prove to be an extremely cruel one.  Properly clothed and housed, the Elves were little troubled by the bitter cold, but the Woodmen and the Men of Esgaroth were hard pressed by the assault of the elements.  The rivers froze with thick layers of ice, halting the barges and barrels which sustained the commerce between the Wood and the Men on the lake.  Fortunately, though perhaps unfortunate for some, the snows were not long in coming, and a wide path for sledges was carved out of the wild alongside the riverbank.  The transfer of goods was more laborious than before, but still worth the effort.


The cold only continued to worsen.  The Woodmen, benefiting from the raw resources of the forest, were largely able to fend for themselves, but the demand for fuel and furs came more stridently from Esgaroth as the months passed.  Thranduil was not willing to hunt the wild things of his realm to excess, but any beast that was felled for food was skinned, and its thick winter pelt sent on to the Lake-men.  Many teams of lumberers were kept busy satisfying the need for cordwood, thinning the hostile forest beyond the Elvenking’s borders, loading the split timbers onto sledges and sending it east to the lake.  Once again, the misfortunes of their neighbors were proving quite profitable for the Wood, although Thranduil began to lower his price as time wore on.  He was in justice entitled to compensation, and he did not wish to humble the pride of the fishermen with outright charity, but he had begun to wonder if they would be able to survive the winter without it.


By midwinter, the cold had deepened to a shocking degree.  The animals were not prepared for it and largely hid themselves in whatever shelter they could find.  The Elves were able to withstand it with relatively good grace, but it was a perilous time for Men. 


Thranduil could feel the savage bite in the air and had already decided that he would not accept payment for the next shipment of firewood.  He was out in the elements with his guard, their horses thickly blanketed, enduring the icy wind as it swept through the denuded trees and sought out every weakness in their clothing.  It would steal his very breath if he let it.  He was riding back to the caverns after a brief inspection of his soldiers along the southern march, returning with Legolas as his son was rotated off duty for a well-deserved rest. 


Ever since he and his family had been forced to walk unprepared and unprovisioned through the winter after the fall of Doriath, Thranduil had not liked the cold.  He had been born in the spring, he had been named for the spring, and all these ages later he was still primarily a creature of the spring and summer.  The frozen ravages of winter were too harsh for his tastes, and so it was with no small relief that he saw the gates of the royal stables open for him and his companions, allowing them to ride into the warm and pleasantly musty shelter.


Thranduil dismounted and gratefully gave his horse to a groom.  “Welcome home again, Legolas,” he said as his son did the same.  “I would linger here with you and your friends, but I cannot wait to escape this infernal cold.”


“I have no intention of lingering here,” Legolas rebutted.  “I have been looking forward to a night in my own bed for far too long.  I want nothing more than to disappear into it as soon as possible.”


“A sound idea,” Thranduil commended him as they left the pleasant glow of the stable and stepped outside.


The gloom of evening was closing in around them, promising another frigid night.  Thranduil hastened his steps, eager to leave the chill behind him.  Legolas matched his stride and then exceeded it, shooting him a sidelong look which implied some good-natured mockery.  Challenged, Thranduil increased his pace to catch him, and then they were both running in a mad dash for the gates. 


The great stone doors opened to admit the King and closed again behind them, barring the worst of the cold, though they could not banish it entirely or the air would grow stale. 


“Impudent boy,” Thranduil complained, shoving Legolas away from him in the corridor, though he was laughing and all his annoyance was feigned. 


Legolas laughed with him.  “For shame, my lord,” he protested.  “Decorum forbids me to respond in kind.”


“Being the King comes with many such privileges,” Thranduil said with a haughty smile, “and I intend to avail myself of several more this evening.  Go feed yourself and get some rest.  We shall have more unpleasant work to do soon enough.”


As they parted ways, Thranduil immediately turned his steps downward toward his opulent bath chamber.  He was dimly aware of the familiar rush of the servants he left in his wake as some ran back to inform Gwaelas of his arrival and others ran ahead to make preparations for him, the guards stiffening smartly as he passed.  He wearily kicked off his boots at the door and then shed his clothes piece by piece in an untidy trail until at last he slipped into the pool of blessedly hot water, somewhere winter could not find him.


The muted sounds of the river as it ran through the cave’s system of sluices was deeply calming, and for a long while he simply let the heat leech away all the stress and tension he had accrued over the last several days.  He lingered there on the edge of sleep until Gwaelas brought him his supper.


“Good evening, my lord,” Gwaelas said, placing the tray on the floor at the edge of the pool without hesitation.  He knew better than to try convincing him to come out.  “Is all well in the wider realm today?”


“For the present, yes, it is,” Thranduil replied.  “The same may be said here, I trust.”


“All continues quiet here, my lord,” Gwaelas assured him.  “It would never do to have you return home to a crisis if it could be helped.”


“Of course, not,” Thranduil agreed with a smile.  “I would never presume to doubt your competence, Gwaelas.”


After his bath, Thranduil excused himself from all other duties and retired at once to bed.  It was not something he often did, but he felt he deserved the indulgence.  Two of the palace wolves and one of the foxes insisted upon going with him.  An extra cup of Dorwinion quieted all his many concerns, Gwaelas bid him good night, and he was already slipping into dream as his head hit the pillow.


There beneath the bedding, in the quiet and the dark and the warmth, with the feral comfort of his dogs at his back, Thranduil enjoyed that simple and unmolested rest he could so seldom afford.  To be insensible for once to anything that moved, to lay down for a moment the burden of his obligations and simply drift in the dark oblivion of sleep was wonderful.


He did not know how long he slept, only that it was not long enough before he was abruptly awakened by the strident squeaking of the fox and Gwaelas’ hand on his shoulder.


“My lord!” Gwaelas insisted, presuming even to shake him.  “My lord, the Dragon Watch!”


Now Thranduil heard it, dimly, the alarm call of the sentries.  He surged out of bed, back into the brisk winter air.  Gwaelas tossed him the tunic he had laid out for the morning, and Thranduil threw it on over his nightclothes.  He quickly tied his hair back, stamped into his boots, and swept into the corridor with the animals and Gwaelas in tow.  As they made for the gates, Gwaelas handed him his sword belt, then a heavy cloak, then his gloves.  Finally adequately assembled, Gwaelas relinquished him into the care of the guards at the gate.  Thranduil continued out into the frozen night and turned onto the steepest and most direct path toward the summit of the hill.


“All Esgaroth is aflame,” his guard informed him.  “The blaze began only moments ago, and already the whole town is engulfed.”


“Was the dragon sighted?” Thranduil demanded.


“Not that I have heard, my lord,” the guard admitted.  “The Watch will know more.”


Every eye of the Watch was indeed trained searchingly on the fire in the east when Thranduil appeared among them.  “Have you seen the dragon?” he demanded again without ceremony, startling many of them.


“We have not,” their captain admitted.  “We have been searching for signs of him, but all we can see is the city burning.”


Thranduil relaxed a bit and looked for himself.  The fire lay near the limit of their Elven sight, but it was just possible to make out the blaze.  “Cities do burn from time to time without a dragon’s help,” he said.  The moonlight illuminated the darkness enough for him to be confident the dragon was not winging about on a nocturnal rampage.  More likely an accident had occurred as the population tried to keep warm above a frozen lake.  The thick ice would prove an unexpected blessing to any fleeing survivors who would otherwise have drowned.  Still, they must be in desperate circumstances.  Exposure to the cold alone could prove deadly for them.  “We must begin preparations to depart for the lake immediately,” he decided.  “See the sledges loaded with shelters, warm clothes, food and cordwood.  I want them on the road within the hour.”



 

 



In addition to the laden sledges, Thranduil led a swifter party on horseback ahead of the main company bearing what necessary relief they could carry.  The cruel cold once again proved an unexpected help, as it had frozen the Long Marshes beside the river and blanketed them with just enough snow to allow the horses sure footing.  They went carefully but as quickly as they could manage in the dark and the inclement weather, and the thin light of dawn was just breaking as they arrived beside the shores of the Long Lake.


The condition of the survivors did not look encouraging.  After a moment’s hesitation, all who could find their feet came swarming toward the Elves to beg assistance.  Each of Thranduil’s companions had his instructions and they set to work immediately, distributing food and woolen blankets, gathering brushwood and kindling fires.  Thranduil spied an old Man of some consequence with what might pass for an entourage of attendants under the circumstances.  The Man was leaning on his cane, trying to approach him, but Thranduil waved him down for the moment.  They would speak later when the initial work was done.


Meanwhile, the Elvenking and his guards began unpacking and unrolling the different pieces of an enormous pavilion, quickly laying them out in the proper order and lashing the eyelets together with cords.  The supporting poles were lifted and anchored into the frozen ground, the outer walls secured with stakes against the wind.  It would not be enough to shelter everyone, but the youngest and the weakest were at least able to escape the worst of the elements.  A fire was kindled near the door with a wall of stones hastily built up behind it to channel the heat inside.


With no more to be done before the sledges arrived, Thranduil at last turned to address the Master of Esgaroth.  The old man was waiting patiently, seated on a stone near the frozen shore watching the charred remains of the town smoke and smolder.  Thranduil approached rather than summon him as a mercy to the other’s obvious infirmity, but the Master insisted upon struggling to his feet in the presence of the Elvenking.


“My lord!” he said, bowing as low as his stiffening body would allow, “you have saved us in our darkest hour and proven generous beyond measure!  I fear in our ruin we shall not have the means of repaying your magnanimity.”


“I do not seek repayment,” Thranduil insisted, dismissing the suggestion.  “Esgaroth is valuable enough to me in its own right to justify my continued investment in its wellbeing.”


“I rejoice to hear it, my lord,” the Master replied with another less ambitious bow.  He was leaning heavily on the arm of his nearest companion, a graying man who seemed less interested in the formalities than he was in the possibility of escaping into the warmth of the pavilion with his lord.


“There are more provisions on the road behind us,” Thranduil explained.  “When the sledges arrive and are unburdened, they will be prepared to bear back to Eryn Galen any who wish to shelter with us while we look to the rebuilding of your city.”


A quavering sigh of relief escaped the Master as he summoned up what remained of his strength.  “Your kindness to our people will be ever remembered, King Thranduil,” he said.  “I have been very concerned for the children in this cold.  We have lost too many already.”


“Indeed, we have, my lord,” the Master’s companion agreed, finally daring to speak, “and we have no wish to lose you as well.  Come away from here and avail yourself of the shelter the Elvenking has so graciously provided.”


“No, no, nephew,” the Master dismissed the suggestion immediately.  “Leave it for the young ones.  Bring me another of those cloaks and I shall be content.”


Impressed by Man’s mettle, Thranduil snapped his fingers at a passing Elf, who immediately turned to retrieve the King’s horse.  When he had brought it, Thranduil unpacked a magnificent fur-lined cloak of his own and presented it to the Master.  “Your people must not be deprived of your leadership during these desperate times,” he said.  “Keep yourself well.  There is work to do yet.”


The sledges arrived three days later, hampered by the terrain and their own weight.  Thranduil and the advance party had not been idle, and together with those Lake-men who had sufficiently recovered their strength they had built a series of rough shelters of brush, loose stone, and earth to accommodate those who would remain and assist in the building of stronger temporary homes on the lakeshore while the new city was planned.  The fresh supplies cheered them a great deal, as did the better food.  The women, children, and the old were loaded onto the empty sledges the following day, and after many tearful farewells they were ready to depart with the Elvenking to outlast the winter in his halls.


The Master, however, refused to go.  “My place is here among my people,” he insisted.  “I would see Lake-town rise again with my own eyes.”


“Well and good, uncle,” his nephew commended him with thinly-veiled impatience, “but surely your venerable years entitle you to some measure of accommodation.  Would it not be better to recover your strength in the Wood rather than waste it here in this dreadful cold?  Our people will understand.”


The Master stamped his cane upon the ground testily.  He had clearly been deflecting similar entreaties for some time.  “I will not hide from this adversity in royal comfort, no matter how gracious the hospitality,” he said with a nod to Thranduil, who stood ready to mount his horse.  “The people must see us among them and know we share their trials.  You must learn this if you are to be elected Master after me.”


Now that he better understood the societal pressures riding upon the nephew, Thranduil found he could muster a bit of pity for him, though he had discipline enough not to smile.  The younger Man may have a keen enough mind for the Mastership, but he did not seem to be cut from quite the same hard-wearing cloth as his uncle. 


“My lord the Elvenking would not flee to a place of solace and comfort if his people were suffering,” the Master continued, illustrating his point with a ready example.


“No, I would not,” Thranduil answered candidly as many eyes were trained on him, almost sorry to finally crush the nephew’s hopes of escape.  He did not envy them the cold months ahead spent in a crude hut on the lakeshore, but such was the harsh reality.  At any rate, he would make certain they did not starve.



 



 

When he returned home, Thranduil had more mundane considerations to address in his own household.  It seemed that during his absence his cellarer had met with a tragic accident.  The details were not entirely known, except that he had gone boar hunting in the wood and had failed to return.  The condition of his body, when they had recovered it, suggested that he had been severely wounded by his quarry and, thus weakened, had fallen prey to the giant spiders.  It was not often that those beasts were able to take Elvish victims, and Captain Tauriel had been quite shaken by the grisly discovery, but had recovered herself admirably.  The problem remained of who should be appointed to his position.


“It is an awkward time to be changing the guard down there,” Thranduil said, not insensible to the callous impropriety of discussing the cellarer’s forsaken duties so soon after his demise.  He was seated at his desk attending the unfortunately large volume of tedious tasks which had accumulated over the last several days.  “Now that our trade with Esgaroth is completely disrupted, we shall have to husband our resources carefully.”


“Taking into account the many extra mouths we are committed to feed,” Linhir reminded him.  “The children in particular have prodigious appetites.”


Gwaelas said nothing, standing at the King’s elbow, yet his silence was unusually heavy. 


“Speak, Gwaelas,” Thranduil commanded him as he signed his approval on the latest troop assignments, trying not to be too brusque.  “I can feel your thoughts looming over me.”


“Yes, my lord,” Gwaelas answered, though with obvious reluctance.  “I am obliged by my family to mention my cousin, Galion, who has expressed an interest in the position.”


Thranduil set down his quill and turned to face him directly.  “Are you recommending him?” he asked.


“Not with a whole heart, my lord,” Gwaelas admitted with a wry expression.  “Galion is still young and has not in my view attained the necessary maturity required of the King’s cellarer.  Still, he may yet grow into the position.”


It was not a ringing endorsement by any means, and was clearly wrung from Gwaelas by his relations, but Thranduil considered it quickly and severely.  “I am disposed to think well of your family,” he said at last, “considering your long and exemplary service, and that of your brother.  You so seldom make requests of me that I am inclined to honor this one.  Tell Galion to report to the cellars tomorrow and the keeper of the keys will show him his duties.”



 



 

As it happened, the Fell Winter, as it was already being called, did not linger an abnormally long time despite the deep freeze.  Spring came when it was expected, the frozen land began to thaw, and it seemed all would be well. 


The new Esgaroth which rose beside the ruin of the old city was smaller and more modest, but perfectly adequate for the surviving population.  Thranduil regretted now that he had failed to visit the original city, and so he made the effort to journey back down the river to attend the new construction’s dedication on the first day of summer. 


A great feast was provided for the people on the shore while the guests of greater consequence were entertained by the Master in his great hall.  A place of special honor was provided for Thranduil, who had many times proven their benefactor. 


“It is said that my predecessor, the first Master of Lake-town, promised there would ever be a seat for you in his hall, my lord,” the old Master greeted him grandly. Some of his vigor seemed to have returned now that the cruel winter had passed and their fortunes had improved.  “It is with great pleasure that I will continue to honor that promise.  As we live, sheltered by the heartwood of your realm, we will ever remember the generosity of the Elvenking.”


“As I will remember the gratitude and courtesy of the Men of the Lake,” Thranduil said.  “We are glad to have friends on our borders, and I will not relinquish them lightly.”


It was an impressive feast, replete with fine wine and exotic seasonings as trade began again in earnest and the goods which had been choked in Rhûn flooded back into the western market at bargain prices.  After living so long, it was an unexpected pleasure to discover new flavors, and when the dinner and the ceremonies had ended Thranduil discreetly inquired about the spices the Master provided to his kitchens. 


“Of course, my lord!” the Master said, brightening as only a merchant does when one expresses an interest in their most expensive wares.  “It would be our pleasure to share these new acquisitions.  Jarl,” he said, turning to his nephew, “please acquaint the Elvenking with the newest spices.”


Jarl obligingly rose and went to retrieve them.  When he returned with a large locked coffer, the Master and his household bid the Elvenking good night and took their leave.  Finally alone with the Master’s presumptive successor, Thranduil took advantage of the opportunity to scrutinize him more carefully. 


“These are the spices most favored in the Master’s household, my lord,” Jarl explained, unlocking the coffer and revealing the carefully organized contents for Thranduil’s perusal.  “Many have only recently been seen in Rhovanion.  They are all very versatile, pleasant in sweet as well as savory foods.”


Paying greater attention to the man than to the presentation, Thranduil nodded.  “And how have you made your fortune, sir?” he asked casually, rolling some colorful peppercorns in his fingers and testing their aroma.  “Was it by trade in these curiosities?”


“Partly, my lord.  We dabble in other ventures as well.”


“Such as?”


“We have traded primarily in fine wines and raw textiles, wool, silk, cotton, and the like.”


Thranduil turned a knowing look upon him, recognizing several of the most lucrative and dependable exports into Greenwood.  Whatever his other virtues, the man clearly knew his business.  “I understand that your uncle is positioning you to succeed him as Master,” he said, changing the subject as he continued to browse through the spices.


“Nothing is certain,” Jarl insisted.  “As you know, the Mastership is an elected position.”


“Of course.”  Thranduil subtly changed his tone to be a bit less amicable and a bit more serious.  “But, in the event of your accession, it would please me to know the city was in the hands of someone upon whom I could thoroughly rely.  I have invested the labor of my people, much time, and a great deal of money in the building and rebuilding of Esgaroth and the preservation of the Dale-men, all of which I believe places this city rather deeply in my debt.”


Jarl became noticeably pale at the thought.  “But, my lord, you said you did not expect repayment,” he protested.


“I do not expect gold,” Thranduil clarified.  “I expect loyalty.”  Jarl continued to stare without any firm comprehension of his meaning, so Thranduil continued.  “I have made the concerns and the perils of Esgaroth my own insofar as lies within my power, and I wish to be compensated in kind.  I would have a staunch ally at my back to defend the gateway to the north, even as I guard the approaches from the south.” 


“But we have no army, my lord,” the man went on, apparently full of tiresome excuses, “no soldiers that can be of any use to you.”


“I do not intend to call you to war,” Thranduil said, becoming rather irritated.  He had not needed to speak so explicitly to the previous Masters, but the longer they spoke the more he was confirmed in his initial opinion that Jarl was a calculating man with a cold heart and a weak spine who may require some extra encouragement to honor his obligations should any uncomfortable situations arise.  “I would have you acquit yourselves bravely should the north be attacked.  Your defense is my defense.  Inform me of what moves in your lands.  Hinder my foes and succor my allies.  Be my eyes and ears in the wilds beyond the marshes.  I trust that is not too much to ask, considering the liberality you have enjoyed.”



Now that Thranduil’s terms were clear, it seemed Jarl was bold enough to resent them.  “The graciousness of the Elves seems somewhat lessened of late,” he grumbled.


Rather than become angry, Thranduil became cold.  He narrowed his eyes, leaned in and planted his elbows on the table, prepared to speak as he might to an insubordinate soldier.  “It seems to me that I have been exceptionally gracious to aid your people in the rebuilding of your city for the second time in its brief history,” he said, very deliberately.  “I will continue to graciously accept whatever service the Lake-men may offer, but I will expect it because it is owed to me.  Failure to honor this duty will be seen as a grave betrayal.  Anyone who would be Master must understand this.  Otherwise, we may be content to do without your grand spices and fine fabrics for a generation.”


Jarl wet his lips and swallowed visibly.  Thranduil allowed the heavy silence to linger for a while before he finally arched his brow, demanding an answer.


“Yes, my lord,” Jarl said, gathering his wits.  “I understand.”


“Very well.”  Thranduil relaxed his menacing posture and returned his attention to the spices.  “In the meantime, I expect you will find my patronage extremely profitable, even considering the preferential arrangement the Galennath still enjoy here.  I am not difficult to please if you do your duty well.  While Erebor lies derelict, there are only we two wedged between the evil of Mirkwood and the menace of the dragon.  Let us not become inimical to one another.”



 

 



When Thranduil returned to his own halls once again, he found a patrol of soldiers eagerly awaiting him with wondrous news from beyond the western marches.  In such times when ill news was more common than any other kind, Thranduil was keen to hear their report and received them at once.


“Say on,” he bid them, sinking into the comfortable familiarity of his throne once again.  “I am told you made an unexpected acquaintance at the western border.”


“Yes, my lord,” their captain began.  “We were tasked with riding the length of the western road, to clear the path and maintain the crossings.  We did so, but when we emerged into the valleys beyond the wood, we found a Man awaiting us there.  He was a giant, dark and bearded, and immensely strong.  He greeted us courteously, and said he had recently made his home in those valleys east of the Anduin, and that he had been waiting for any emissaries of the Elvenking to whom he could make himself known.”


“And did he?” Thranduil asked, intrigued.  “He has a name, I trust.”


“The name he gave us is Beorn,” the captain continued.  “Forgive us, my lord, but we judged it best that four of us accompany him to his home as he bid us rather than return at once as we were ordered.  Two remained at the west gate to keep the road and await the safe return of the rest of our party.”


“Very well,” Thranduil said, “you are forgiven.  What did you discover of our new enigmatic neighbor?”


An expression of grim amazement passed the captain’s features.  “There is some powerful magic upon him, my lord,” he said.  “His home is a sanctuary for tame beasts, with vast gardens for their use and pleasure, and he himself is a skin-changer who may at will assume the form of an enormous black bear.”


Now Thranduil felt the same expression on his own face.  This was not the first he had heard of such skin-changers, but they had fallen out of legend long ago.  “Do we know where he comes from?” he asked.


“He would only say that his people were severely harried by the Orcs and Goblins of the Misty Mountains, and that he may be among the last of his kind.  He says it is his intention to live a solitary and quiet life among his companion animals, bothering little about the doings of the wider world, but that you, the Elvenking, may consider him an ally against any Wargs or Goblins which may venture east of the river.”


Thranduil considered this remarkable development for a moment.  “Well,” he said at last, “I shall not presume to call upon him, since he so values his solitude, but it is still no bad thing to have an irritable shape-shifting bear living in the valley if he intends to make war on the Goblins.  Did he mention whether he was known to Radagast?”


“It was Radagast who impelled him to make himself known to you, my lord,” the captain explained.  “He sends you a greeting and some small tribute.”


Another of the soldiers stepped out from behind his fellows and approached the King bearing a long shrouded object.  He sank to one knee and offered it to Thranduil.  “These are the words of Beorn,” he began, very properly.  “Hail, Thranduil Thalion, Elvenking Orc-bane.  Allies we may be in perils yet to come; now I am but a wanderer who seeks his peace in the valley.  I am friend to all good folk but servant to none.  I swear no fealty, but promise only that our common foes will find no safe passage across the Anduin if Beorn hears of them.”


Abrupt and yet not discourteous, it was more or less the greeting Thranduil expected he would receive from a bear if ever he was to be honored with one.  He carefully lifted the wrapping off Beorn’s gift, revealing it to be a noble staff of oak wood, intricately carven with a riot of leaves, acorns, and the occasional bear.  The details were minutely finished, and clearly the result of long and diligent labor.  At first glance it seemed to belie Beorn’s apparent disinterest in the realms surrounding his home, but more likely it only confirmed his own protestations that he could be an extremely valuable ally when it served his purposes. 


“I feel it would be appropriate to importune good Beorn with a message of thanks, and perhaps a token of our goodwill in return, one lord to another,” Thranduil said, taking the staff in hand, testing its weight and balance.  “What might we have to offer a bear?”


“He cares not for gold or jewels,” the captain said, “nor does he hunt or slay any beast besides the evil creatures who threaten his land.  While we were his guests, it seemed he lived quite happily on little besides cream and honey.”


Thranduil frowned thoughtfully.  “It is difficult to send gifts to one who wants for nothing,” he said.  “Still, such tribute deserves an answer.  Rest and prepare yourselves to return to Beorn’s house with our thanks.”



 



 

Gwaelas turned his steps down toward the cellars to collect the gifts the King had selected for Beorn.  Not knowing what else could tempt him, Thranduil had elected to send several pots from their own honey reserves, the special preparations infused with summer’s lilac blossoms, the autumnal spices from Esgaroth, or the striking crimson essence of woodland berries.  Gwaelas reflected on how very appropriate a gift it was given the circumstances, pleasantly useful and implying the thoughtful regard of the giver, yet not so grand as to oblige the recipient to respond.  It was very diplomatic.


He was roused out of his thoughts, however, as he approached the cellar doors and found them sloppily ajar.  The raucous noise coming from inside was even more concerning.  Gwaelas entered cautiously, a sinking feeling growing in his stomach alongside a smoldering indignation as he surveyed the scene. 


The whole place was in a state of slight disarray, not so confused that it could truly be called messy, but just unkempt enough to betray a lack of care on the part of its keeper.  The party of Elves who had been sent down to help prepare and return the empty barrels to the river’s course were lingering overlong, neglecting their duties upstairs while at the same time making merry with the cellar’s stores of wine and cheese.  Storeroom doors which should have been locked stood open to admit all comers.  A cursory glance at the cellarer’s ledger told Gwaelas that the last shipment had not yet been completely tallied, and that certainly no mention had been made of withdrawing any of the fine refreshments being consumed before his very eyes.


Gwaelas snatched the flute from the piper, abruptly ending the music and causing the lively song to die away.  “I believe you all have duties to attend elsewhere,” he said sternly, dismissing them at once.  They obeyed, albeit rather grudgingly.  None of them was bold enough to gainsay Thranduil’s most intimate representative. 


“Good evening to you as well, cousin,” Galion said with a wry expression.  He drained his cup and finally rose out of his chair.  “Has the King’s service robbed you of all cheer?”


Gwaelas just stared at him, aghast.  “What are you doing?” he finally asked, discreetly lowering his voice.  “The King has entrusted you with one of the most vital services in his household.”


“And I will perform it,” Galion protested, resentful of the lecture he knew was coming.  “I have put in a great deal of work these past months and the ship is still sailing.  Surely the King would not begrudge his most diligent servants some small indulgence to aid the labor.”


Angrily, Gwaelas took up a discarded cheese rind with a very distinctive stamp.  “This alone cost more than what you earn in a fortnight,” he insisted, throwing it at him, “which you would know if you kept the ledger as closely as you ought.  Why are the stores not secured?  How often have you been distributing the King’s property among your friends?”


Galion scowled.  “At least I have friends,” he said.  “Perhaps you would, too, if you occasionally condescended to share the fruits of your good fortune.” 


He reached for his wine, but Gwaelas grabbed it first.  Testing the smell of it, he was horrified to recognize the King’s private reserve from Dorwinion.  He threw the cup away, seized his cousin by the collar, dragged him into the shadows of an open granary and slammed him into the wall. 


“Already I curse the day I gave the King your name,” he growled, pinning Galion against the rock with his arm.  The outrage was bringing out a violence in him that seldom stirred.  “Six thousand years we have served the Kings of Eryn Galen, yet in three short months your heedless attitude has completely corrupted the discipline in these halls.  Only our kinship and my misplaced concern for your mother keeps me from throwing you immediately upon Thranduil’s mercy.”


Galion did seem surprised and even somewhat chastened by the rough treatment.  Seeing the change, Gwaelas released him with one final shove against the wall.  “I will be having a word with the keeper of the keys,” he promised ominously, “whom you have so successfully bent to your will.  The King put you here because he expects great things from you, not so that you could amuse yourself at his expense!  Do you really imagine he will be content to let you plunder his goods unpunished?”


Finally seeming to consider the possible consequences, Galion paled.  “What are you going to tell him?” he asked.


“Nothing,” Gwaelas snapped, “though it galls me to admit it.  But understand, I will not defend you again.  I have no time to coddle you, and I expect you to find it in yourself to prove equal the King’s expectations.  You asked to be here,” he reminded him with a last disdainful glance.  “Do not squander the opportunity, or we may both find ourselves on the wrong side of him.”  Gwaelas heaved a terse sigh, trying to regain his flustered composure before he returned to the halls upstairs.  “Now, before I forget why I came, show me where we keep the honey reserves.”



Chapter 40 - The Affairs of Wizards



“My lord, the waterway is severely restricted by the debris left by the flood,” the raftsman was explaining.  “If something is not done soon, the barges will find the river unnavigable.”


Seated at the King’s table with Lord Linhir standing by, Thranduil set down the excessively embellished parchment from Esgaroth and looked up at his raftsman, his irritation veiled by a thin veneer of forbearance.  “Is the road along the river still fit for use?” he asked.


“No, my lord,” the raftsman said.  “The floods have widened the marshes and the old roads have become treacherous.  I would not trust a pony on them, much less a loaded cart.”


Thranduil indulged in a long sigh, summoning up what remained of his patience.  “Very well.  Return to your duties.  I will address the matter at once.”


The raftsman bowed and took his leave.  


“How do you intend to address it?” Lord Linhir asked in a flat tone that mirrored Thranduil’s own exasperation.  “With more useless messages to Esgaroth?”


“Perhaps with one more,” Thranduil said, sweeping the beribboned scroll off the table into a pile of refuse.  “I knew we would have trouble with him.”


The old Master of Lake-town had died twenty years before, and his nephew had indeed succeeded him, swept into the position on the strength of his uncle’s reputation and his own conspicuous success in business, success Thranduil knew was largely due to his patronage.  The new Master was extremely accommodating in matters of trade, keeping the Woodland Realm supplied with all they needed or desired, yet when it came to matters of expenditure or investment he was a veritable font of procrastination.  


The most pointed debate had arisen over the maintenance of the roads and waterways between the Wood and the Lake.  Thranduil felt he had paid for quite enough already in building and rebuilding the town itself, and he expected the Lake-men, as the primary purveyors of goods along the waterway, to take the upkeep of the river upon themselves.  The Master, however, had argued that the greater share of the trouble was caused by debris washed into the river from the forest, and that it was the Elves’ responsibility.  He seemed to be primarily stalling for time in the hope that Thranduil would become impatient enough to see to the work himself.  It was a stratagem that had admittedly worked in the past, as Thranduil had on a few occasions grown weary of the Master’s indecisive whinging and set his Elves to clearing the waterways and reinforcing the banks.  He had subsequently demanded a better price on his regular shipments considering the expenses he had incurred.  The Master had now replied with more elegant protests which accomplished nothing but to prolong the correspondence.  The Master was not a man of weapons, but he would fight tirelessly for any coin he believed he could feasibly hold.


“So be it,” Thranduil finally said.  “Linhir, draft a reply to the Master of Esgaroth.  I will take the maintenance of the river upon myself, but because he has practically forced me to own it, I will be instating a toll for its use.  They may share that expense if they wish to continue trading with us.  Send appropriate instruction to the raftsmen.”


“As you wish,” Linhir agreed.  “And what if he tries to wheedle out of this as well?”


“I would like to see him try.  The first barge we refuse will cause enough uproar among his own people to bring him to heel.  What other business?”


“That was the worst of it,” Linhir said, closing his book with a knowing smile.  They had been at it for a few hours, and Thranduil suspected his impatience was obvious.  “The rest will keep, at least until after the festival.  I would not try to keep you penned in here while the hunt is gathering.”


Thranduil smiled, keen to make good his escape.  “I shall leave it all in your hands, then,” he said, rising from his chair.  “I know you will manage it beautifully.”


“I always do,” Linhir agreed with a smug confidence he had well earned.  “Bring back some choice venison for me.”


Thranduil paused in the doorway to turn the same expression back on him.  “I always do.”


The changing of the seasons was a festive time, and the Galennath were never sorry to celebrate a single event twice if they could.  The hunt which marked the final days of summer was gathering that night, an event that would continue for several days.  Shortly thereafter the great feasts to welcome the onset of autumn would begin.  With any luck, the foul Lord of Dol Guldur would keep himself quiet and allow them to enjoy it.


Thranduil quickly returned to his chambers and dressed himself in something more appropriate for several rugged days in the forest.  His was not to be the only hunting party, but he had taken advantage of the occasion to choose his favorite companions: Lords Galadhmir and Anárion and their sons, Legolas, Tauriel, and the ranks of his personal guard.  He met them outside as the evening shadows lengthened, armed as they all were with bow and knives.


“Ah, Linhir has released him at last!” Legolas said gladly as the whole group of them rose to their feet and bowed their heads to greet the King.  The dogs began barking and jumping about, eager to be gone.


“Yes, he has,” Thranduil said, gesturing to put them at their ease, “and let our leaving be no longer delayed on my account.  Are we all here?”


“We were only waiting for you,” Lord Galadhmir confirmed with a smile.  “I am pleased to see Linhir is not completely the spoilsport we had begun to suspect him to be.”


“No, indeed,” Thranduil agreed.  “Be kind to Linhir; he keeps the wheels turning.  Come on, loose the dogs.”


They were not chasing the evil things of the forest that day, and most of those had sense enough to keep themselves hidden from the King’s hunt.  There were a few thick enclaves of the giant spiders near the lonely western road through Mirkwood, but they would be cleared another day.  For now the Elves carefully avoided stirring them, preferring to enjoy the holidays without complicating the occasion with swarms of angry spiders.  


It was not so very different from being on campaign, but at the same time it was always a necessary and refreshing change.  They had gone to war together countless times, and often it seemed that the war consumed their lives.  Now they were venturing out again in force, yet their objective was not half so perilous.  The hunt had become the soldier’s play.


The first hunt was concluded after six days, and there was a great gathering in a secluded glade where the King and his guests could enjoy the fruits of their labors.  The entire royal household was in attendance with their friends, children, and other favored companions.  All formal pomp and ceremony were temporarily forgotten as they enjoyed that opportunity to celebrate together as a large extended family.


Bonfires lit the night, and the aromas of roast meat and fresh bread pervaded the wood.  Sweet baked apples were provided for the young ones, and there was no end to the music and song.  Everyone had a chance to lead the company in their favorite selections, be they lighthearted silvan songs or the epic ballads drawn from their deep history.  The whole assembly was held rapt as Thranduil, Linhir, Galadhmir, and Anárion performed a stirring rendition of the Battle of Sauron and Finrod Felagund for the benefit of the younger generations, accompanied by Lady Gwaelin and Lady Menelwen.  Thranduil manipulated the fire during the song to great dramatic effect, throwing shadows or great twisting pillars of flame to embellish the narrative.  


The festivities continued with hardly a pause afterward, but Thranduil found that the substance of the song lingered differently in his mind.  Of course, any tale of Sauron’s cruel exploits had greater significance to them now that all the Galennath knew the identity of their old enemy in Dol Guldur, and Thranduil had not forgotten the way Mithrandir had compared his struggles to Finrod’s heroic end.  Would his own protracted battle with Sauron eventually be the death of him?  If it must be so, Thranduil hoped he could make an end worthy of a song like that.


Lady Gwaelin approached him, still carrying her harp, and touched his arm in the familiar and comforting way she always had.  “Do not look so melancholy, my lord,” she chided him.  “Now is not the time for it.”


“I am not melancholy,” Thranduil protested with a smile.  “At least, no more than usual.  As time goes on, I find the old songs give me more to think about.”


She nodded, understanding exactly what he meant.  “I cannot help but feel we are writing our own song now,” she said.  Then she smiled at him.  “Perhaps I shall set it to music.  The Lay of the Oropherionnath?”


“Now, that could be quite melancholy,” Thranduil observed.  “And it has no ending yet.”


“That does not worry me,” Gwaelin laughed, snatching an apple from a passing basket and tossing it to him.  “I am certain you will make an end worth singing about.”


“You flatter me, my lady, but I will thank you to stop singing over my grave until I am in it.”


It was a true pleasure to see everyone having such a good time, proof that they could still find joy in their lives despite the hardships of their daily existence.  Mirkwood may not be a paradise, but it was still home.  The malevolent darkness which infected the wood seemed chastened by the defiant force of their presence.  It would creep back when they had gone, but for now the night belonged to them.


Thranduil’s smile faded when he saw Legolas in serious conversation with a troop of soldiers.  Tauriel appeared beside him, listening intently and frowning.  They looked briefly at one another, and then they both looked over at him.  Thranduil sighed and began walking toward them, regretting whatever trouble had arisen to interrupt the festival.  Were a few carefree days too much to ask?


“Tell the King what you told me,” Legolas bid the senior soldier when Thranduil had joined them.


“My lord,” he said, acknowledging the King with a bow, “there is a party of Dwarves on your road.”


Thranduil blinked, bemused for a moment.  “Dwarves?” he repeated.  “Where, and how many?”


“They are just south of us now, and there are thirteen or fourteen of them.”


“Why the uncertainty?” Thranduil demanded.


“There are fourteen in the party,” the soldier clarified, “but one may not be a Dwarf.  Perhaps he is a young Dwarf, although I have never seen one.  He is small and beardless, and he has no boots.  At least one of the Dwarves seems to have fallen under the enchantment of the river, and the others are rather inconvenienced by him.”


“How are they armed?” Thranduil asked, keen to know their purpose.


“Poorly.  They have bows, yet seem to have exhausted their arrows.  Their leader bears a great sword, but the others seem to have only small knives.  They also appear to be poorly provisioned, with little food or water.”


Thranduil relaxed a bit.  It did not sound like a particularly dangerous group, but he would have to insist that they give some account of themselves before they would be permitted to leave his domain, even if they proved harmless.  “Keep a watch on them,” he decided, “but do not accost them yet.  Let the festival continue.  We will gather them when they arrive at the road’s end.”


“Yes, my lord.”


Legolas and Tauriel lingered as the soldiers returned to their duties.  “What do you make of it, my lord?” Legolas asked.  “Dwarves have never ventured upon that road before.  They have always passed south of the mountains, or through the northern borderlands.”


Thranduil shrugged.  “Those roads must have grown perilous indeed if they are obliged to travel mine.  They are likely heading for the Iron Hills, and hopefully they will not make difficulties when I question them.  If they keep to the road, they will not trouble us for now.”


The merrymaking was briefly suspended the next day in order to prepare for the second round.  They had bid farewell to summer, and now they must welcome the autumn.  The weather turned wet for a time, sprinkling the forest with rain, but the Elves were undeterred.  


Thranduil took advantage of the time to ride throughout the near region to be certain that order was maintained.  The wandering Dwarves had set his mind turning, and he needed to see that everything was still quiet.  The spiders were keeping to themselves, taking to heart the brutal lessons the King’s army had taught their kind in the past.  He could not find anything especially out of place, despite their unwelcome and unexpected guests.  


“I say leave it,” Lord Anárion said when their search turned up nothing.  “It is just a party of vagabond Dwarves, probably with no ill intent.”


“Perhaps you are right,” Thranduil allowed.  “There is still something about it I do not like.  Double the watch,” he decided, turning his horse back the way they had come.  “I want no more surprises.”


The rain was courteous enough to stop before the evening’s entertainments.  Everyone dressed in their best to greet the season.  On behalf of all the Galennath, Lord Brilthor crowned Thranduil with berries and the first red leaves just as the last rays of sunset faded from the forest.  The fires were lit again and the feasting and singing began anew.  


There in the dancing firelight and glad music, Thranduil could almost forget that nagging doubt in the back of his mind.  The feast had been prepared with great care, and it seemed impious to not enjoy it.  


Beside him, Lord Linhir was certainly not letting the circumstances dampen his enthusiasm.  The royal seneschal was already several cups deep in wine.  He skewered a slice of venison on his dagger and waved it under Thranduil’s nose.  “Come back to us, my lord,” he said.  “Do not let your pensive thoughts rob you of the evening.”


Thranduil deflected the annoyance with his wrist, though he did smile.  “Mind your own thoughts, Linhir,” he advised.  “You are not on duty tonight.”


“Ah, yes, but the King never rests, does he?”  Linhir signaled to a passing wine-bearer to replenish the King’s cup.  “He should now and then, you know.  His obligations are heavy.  We all see it.  In fact, I believe your endeavors are worth more songs than they have hitherto enjoyed.  Perhaps we may remedy that.”


Before Thranduil could question it, Linhir seized his own wine, leapt onto the great tree stump in the center of the glade just as Lady Gwaelin stilled her harp strings, and offered the gathered company a first verse in his strong voice.


When peace lay on the Wood, the Woodland kingdom stood
Unchallenged and tranquil, abundant and good.


Then swift the shadow came, a demon cloaked in flame,
Our kingdom to ravage, our honor to shame.


Thranduil watched with a tolerant expression, prepared to humor Linhir’s drunken exploits.  But then Gwaelin took up the tune on her harp, and Legolas, Tauriel, Galadhmir, Anárion, and several others joined the song as though they had known it for years.


Deprived of his great Ring, with hatred’s bitter sting, 
Cruel Gorthaur came prowling to challenge our King.


Determined to have done with Oropher’s proud son,
He unleashed his armies with mercy for none.


Raise a song for your champion, O people of Greenwood, O people of Greenwood.
Raise a song for your champion, O soldiers of Greenwood.


By the end of the first chorus everyone in the glade had joined the performance, revealed to be much more than an idle whim.  Thranduil received the surprise tribute graciously, and he had to admit that it improved his mood considerably.  It seemed he was the only one who did not already know the words.


Left alone to face that curse of Elder Days,
The Lord of Dol Guldur, our King pled for grace.


Abandoned by the Wise, by Elder lords despised,
Still Thranduil leads us, still his banner flies.


The Galennath stand fast, as in the ages past,
Beneath Oropherion, loyal to the last.


Our courage will not fail, nor evil things prevail,
While our King defies them, through trial and travail.


Raise a song for your champion, O people of Greenwood, O people of Greenwood,
Raise a song for your champion, as all our fallen would.


The final chorus continued to swell, repeated over and over with many layers of elaborate counterpoint and playful harmonies,  It might have gone on for quite some time, but such a commotion suddenly arose at the edge of the glade that Thranduil was obliged to stand and prematurely raise a hand for silence.


“What has happened?” he asked as scores of disturbed Elves pushed their way into the glade.


“They attacked us at our merrimaking, my lord!” one of them explained.


“Who did?”


“Dwarves!  There is a pack of Dwarves running wild through our wood, my lord.  We fled before them under cover of darkness, not knowing whether it be your will that we slay them or not.”


“I do not wish them to be slain,” Thranduil said firmly, though with a wry expression.  “Was anyone hurt?”


“No, my lord.”


“Very well.”  Thranduil invited them farther into the glade with a gesture.  “You will remain with us here and the festival will continue.  Now that they have left the path, the Dwarves will be unlikely to find it again, especially in the dark.  If they have any good sense they will stay where they are, and at dawn the soldiers will collect them.”


The bards struck up their music once more, but the merry spontaneity of the moment was spoiled.  Thranduil stood rooted where he was, pensive and preoccupied again.  


“So, they have left the path,” Legolas observed grimly, coming to stand at the King’s elbow.  “Would it not be better to take them now?”


Thranduil sighed.  “To be perfectly frank,” he said, “I would prefer to avoid the fuss and bother, at least until morning.  If we take them, we will have to march them back to the caverns, question them, possibly find somewhere to secure them, and the night will be wasted.  The wood is quiet and the weather is fair; they will keep until morning.”


Another few hours of good food, heady wine, and lively music was enough to help many of them forget the incident, but Thranduil could not quite dismiss it.  He tried to put it out of mind, but the thought of fourteen Dwarves roaming at will through his domain was like the scratching of a hidden thorn, uncomfortable and persistent.  


Noruvion and Anárion sidled up to him, seemingly intent upon lightening his mood.  “I hear Captain Tauriel has been distinguishing herself,” Anárion said, nodding toward her as she led Legolas, Bregonsúl, Calenmir, and several other captains and scouts in a haunting soldier’s song in the old silvan language.  


“She has proven very passionate in the pursuit of her chosen profession,” Thranduil said.  “I must admit that her competence has exceeded my expectations.”


“Have you told her that, my lord?” Noruvion asked pointedly.  “I suspect it would mean a great deal to her if you did.  She is driven less by a thirst for vengeance than by a desire for your approval.”


Thranduil frowned.  “Tauriel knows I value her service.”


“Yes, but I suspect it is not only as the King that she wishes to please you,” Noruvion persisted.  “The child will naturally want to emulate the father.   The poor girl never knew her father.  She tried walking my path for a time, but now it seems she is determined to follow you.”


“I am not her father,” Thranduil insisted firmly.


Noruvion scoffed silently.  “You became a father to her the moment you cut her free of her mother’s body,” he said.  “I doubt even her true parents would begrudge you that.”


“We have all seen how you have guided her progress,” Anárion said with a gentle smile, “aware of her at every turn, yet pretending impartiality.  You need not pretend any more, Thranduil.  Fate gave her to you, the same way it did us.  We, the broken things of this world, are drawn to one another.  And she loves you.”


Thranduil continued staring blankly ahead, broadsided by the sudden emotion they had dredged out of him.  It seemed the wine was making them all a bit more honest than he liked.  He had been denying it even to himself for a long time, but they were right.  He saw her standing beside Legolas amidst their fellows, and he realized he already considered them a pair, the son of his blood and the daughter the Wood had borne him.  Was he doing her a disservice by maintaining the decorous distance between them?


Another disturbance rippled through the company, interrupting everything as another crowd of displaced revelers entered the glade.  Thranduil rumbled irritably and stood up at once.  “Was it the Dwarves again?” he demanded. 


“They sent the young one to put us off our guard, but they were all lying in ambush,” an irate soldier explained.  “We did not give them battle, as we had heard was your wish, sire, but they are proving to be extraordinarily troublesome!”


“So they are,” Thranduil agreed.  “Come, pass the night here with us.”


The music began again, but there was a distinct tension in the air now.  Thranduil closed his eyes and sighed deeply, knowing how heavily his temper could influence the assembly.  He was determined to salvage what they could of the night regardless of how disrupted it had been, but the likelihood of success was growing thinner by the moment.  He could feel the dark things of the forest beginning to stir, roused by all the upset.  


Making the best of the situation, Lady Gwaelin’s son Calenmir borrowed her harp and struck up a tune which everyone immediately recognized.  It was a somber ballad which recounted the struggles of life in Mirkwood, but it was punctuated with a defiant and extraordinarily vulgar chorus directed toward the Lord of Dol Guldur which was immensely satisfying to sing.  It was the sort of thing one would never hear in Imladris.


It perfectly suited the disposition of the crowd at that moment, and they gladly joined him in several verses, adding the improvised accompaniment of drums made of upturned bowls and whatever else was ready to hand.  The rude choruses grew louder and more belligerent with each repetition until at last even the King and his lords had joined them, gladly telling Gorthaur exactly where he could put his scheme to conquer the Galennath.  


Then everything abruptly stilled in a single drawn moment as a Dwarf stepped into the glade.


Thranduil extinguished every fire and torch with a single pulse, and he angrily blasted the ash and cinders at the intruders, making it abundantly clear that they were not welcome.  The glade was cleared immediately, everyone grabbing what they could carry and fleeing into the wilds, leaving the Dwarves hollering at each other in darkness and confusion.


They had not gone far when Thranduil brusquely called a halt, though they lit no torches.  After a moment of silent discernment, he could tell there would be at least one more challenge to meet.  “The spiders are roused,” he said.  “Ladies, return north at once.  Soldiers to me!  We must subdue the vermin before we rest.”  


The crowd split at once, the noncombatants returning to the caverns while everyone else gathered into impromptu formations around the King.  None of them was without a weapon, but they were unarmored and ill-prepared for a battle.  Nonetheless, Thranduil tore the elaborate mantle off his shoulders and drew his sword from its jeweled sheath.  “Legolas, Tauriel, Anárion,” he said, “each of you take a company and follow me.  Form a cordon to the east, north, and west.  I do not want them any nearer our borders tonight.”


Forming themselves into a loose semicircle beneath the trees, the Galennath rushed forward behind their King.  The spiders had indeed left their strongholds, but instead of a hapless band of travelers they met only angry Elves.  The slaughter went on for some time, beyond the dawn and into the morning.  By mid-day the beasts finally recognized a bad business and turned tail, but Thranduil gave chase even unto the black trees where they had been spawned.  The force of his wrath shook the vast webs which shrouded the forest, warning every spider young and old that the King would not tolerate any further trespassing.  If they valued their lives, they would remain in the south and keep quiet.  He demanded their assent.  Slowly, begrudgingly, they gave it.


Momentarily satisfied, Thranduil grunted and turned his back, beginning the long march home. 


It would be a journey of several hours on foot through the dim and dreary expanse of Mirkwood.  Thranduil kept his thoughts to himself for a time, letting his anger gradually burn itself out.  In its place was left merely a keen annoyance at the complete derangement of the festival.  He was not especially weary even after the battle, but he had expected to be pleasantly inebriated by now and asleep in his bed.  Instead they were trudging through the brush with no breakfast, dirtied with spider’s filth and clinging webs.  He sighed irritably to himself as he remembered they still had wandering Dwarves to collect before the day’s work was done.


A cry went up when they had at last drawn near the festival glade.  Thranduil thrust his way forward through the gathering crowd to see what the fuss was about.  There on the ground lay the Dwarf who had disturbed them, still lost in an enchanted sleep.


“He is fortunate the spiders did not take him,” Legolas observed with a frown.


“Yes, he is,” Thranduil agreed.  “I suppose we cannot simply leave him to their predations.  Bind his hands.”


Two long branches were cut and lashed together to make a crude sledge on which they could drag him back to the caverns.  Considering how disruptive those Dwarves had already been, Thranduil decided to not lift the enchantment until they were safely within the palace gates.  “Legolas, Tauriel,” he said, accepting the great sword and scabbard taken from their prisoner, “find the rest of them.  I want them all accounted for.”


“Yes, my lord.”


It was still a considerable distance to the caverns, and darkness was falling again as they arrived.  Thranduil stormed through his gates in his irredeemably filthy festal garb, his patience thin and his temper short.  The others followed as swiftly as they might, burdened with their prisoner.  The King pointed to the floor as the gates swung closed behind them, indicating that they lay him down.  “He has ridden far enough,” Thranduil said.  “Let his own legs carry him from here.”


The sleeping Dwarf did not stir as they pulled him off the sledge, laid him on the ground and loosed his bonds.  Thranduil looked him over with a critical eye.  There was just enough indication of rank on him to suggest he was a person of some consequence, but otherwise he looked little better than a beggar, and was equipped like one.  


He had already touched many disgusting things that day, so Thranduil steeled himself to endure one more.  Crouched beside the Dwarf, he lay his hand on the other’s face and prepared to break the spell.  The Dwarvish mind was a foreign place to him, and such intimate contact was not pleasant, but he did finally succeed in discovering the root of the dreams.  Thranduil broke through them, but even unconscious the Dwarf was not inclined to follow him or heed his directions.  Instead it was the Dwarf’s own revulsion at being so closely compromised by an Elf that brought him back into the waking world. 


Thranduil stood again and resumed a haughty distance as the Dwarf staggered to his feet with a venomous glare.  He took in his surroundings like a furtive animal, and then drew himself up with sullen self-importance.


“I gather you are the leader of that rabble of Dwarves wandering wild in my domain,” Thranduil began.  


The Dwarf gave no answer, simply stood there like a surly adolescent.


Thranduil drew a measured breath and grasped at the last shreds of his patience, piqued by the audacity and ingratitude of their uninvited guest.  “What is your name?” he asked, choosing to be inescapably direct.  “Who and what do you claim to be?”


Still the Dwarf refused to oblige him with an answer, obviously determined to be difficult, as immovable as stone.


“Clearly you are an imbecile, whatever else you may be,” Thranduil snapped,  “wandering through the wilds of Mirkwood without provisions or proper weapons.  You are indeed fortunate to have reached our borders with your life.”


The Dwarf grunted.  “My name is my own,” he said, finally condescending to speak.  “I do not share it with many, and certainly not with my enemies.”


“If you wish to be an enemy, we will continue to treat you as such,” Thranduil said.  “Why did you and your company three times attack my people at their merrymaking?”


“We did not attack them,” the Dwarf insisted, resentful of the implication.  “We came to beg, because we were starving.”


“Where are your companions now,” Thranduil asked, “and what are they doing?”


“I cannot say, but I imagine they are starving in the forest.”


Thranduil bit his tongue and strove to maintain an even tone.  “You all seem very ill-prepared.  What were you doing in Mirkwood?”


“Looking for food and drink, because we were starving.” 


“But why did you enter the forest at all?” Thranduil demanded, his patience at an end.  


The Dwarf hesitated and became surlier than ever.  Plainly he thought his business a great secret, and had no intention of divulging it.


“Very well,” Thranduil said with a gesture to his guard.  “Take him away and secure him until he feels inclined to tell the truth, even if he waits a hundred years.  When he has learned respect, I will hear him.”


The Dwarf was bound again and led away, though he spat at Thranduil in passing.  Perhaps his aim would have been truer had he been better fed, but the insult was taken regardless.  Thranduil knew he should have been cold to it, but once again it was the callous ingratitude that rankled him.  What had he done but provide a serviceable road, quell the marauding of the spiders, rescue the Dwarf from starvation, lift his enchantment, and ask only a few judicious questions in return?  How did that merit being spat upon?  Thranduil was always aware of the high regard of his own people, but he appreciated it all the more when he was confronted with the contempt of strangers.  


“Thranduil,” Lord Anárion said, dragging him out of his own thoughts, “what is that in your hand?”  He looked as though he had seen a ghost.


Too preoccupied to notice before, Thranduil finally examined the prisoner’s sword.  “Apparently it is an extremely fine blade,” he observed, surprised by the quality.  It was obviously of Elvish make, and he noted the mode of the runes on the hilt.  “And a very old one.”


Anárion moved to take it, but restrained himself.  “May I?” he asked, deathly pale and plainly rather shaken.


Thranduil obliged, perturbed by the change in him.  Anárion took the sword carefully and examined the inscriptions.  Then he drew the blade, keen and bright in the lamplight.  “This is Orcrist,” he said at last, “forged in Gondolin for the royal house of Turgon.  I never expected to see it again.”


Thranduil looked at the sword with greater appreciation.  “I wonder that it came into the possession of a wandering Dwarf,” he said.  Then he remembered Thrór’s hoard and Melian’s brooch, and he frowned.  “But they acquire forgotten treasures from many unsavory sources, so perhaps it is no wonder at all.”


“Is it true that the blades of the Gondolindrim shine blue at the approach of Orcs?” Calenmir asked, intrigued.


“We saw a few that did during the Last Alliance,” Thranduil told his nephew.  “I cannot say whether this one will.”


“It should,” Anárion assured them.  “Imparting that quality was a closely guarded secret of the mightiest smiths in the Hidden City, and this was one of their masterworks.”  He sheathed the sword and returned it to Thranduil.  “Keep it well, my lord.”


“I shall,” Thranduil said, handling the weapon with new respect.  “In these uncertain times, I expect we shall have need of it.”








Regarding the the Elves' party music:

- The lords' ballad was inspired by The Battle of Sauron and Finrod Felegund as performed by Clamavi De Profundis.
- Linhir's song is set to the tune of Toss a Coin to Your Witcher from the Witcher Netflix series. It was catchy. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
- For the flavor of Calenmir's unprintable song, see another selection from the show, Whoreson Prison Blues.

Chapter 41 - The Affairs of Wizards II



Thranduil forced himself to sleep that night, knowing the rest would make him more congenial if nothing else.  He was eagerly anticipating the return of Legolas and Tauriel with the rest of the Dwarves.  He had no doubt of their eventual success, unless the unfortunates had been taken by the spiders.  That anticipation made it difficult to quiet his mind, but a few cups of Dorwinion helped him find peace enough for a few hours.


“Good morning, sire,” Gwaelas said as he entered the King’s chambers, mildly surprised to see him already awake and dressed.


“What news, Gwaelas?” Thranduil asked, dismissing the wolves.  “Has the Prince returned?”


“Not yet, my lord.”


Thranduil sighed.  “Very well.  I imagine we have a great deal of other business to occupy us in the meantime.”


When Gwaelas had finished making him presentable, Thranduil left his chambers and strode through the caverns toward his throne.  He did feel much better after a night of sleep.  He felt secure in his position, content and serenely confident in the face of all challenges.  So deeply had he entrenched himself into the life of his realm over the centuries that he and the Wood almost breathed as one.  He should sleep more often.


Lord Linhir was waiting for him, as he ever was.  They spent the morning attending all the tedious entries in his book.  Teams of foresters and dredgers were sent to maintain the waterways, a courier was dispatched to Esgaroth explaining Thranduil’s terms to the Master, and it was confirmed that the Dwarf was still sitting in his cell with no intention of improving his behavior.  


“Your scouts have returned,” Linhir told him when they had concluded the most urgent business.


“Send them in,” Thranduil said.  “It is high time I heard what is moving in the wider world.”


Two pairs of Guardsmen approached to make their reports this time.  Bregonsúl and Tavoron had been sent south and west, Neldorín and Ascaron to the north and east, and they had conveniently returned at the same time.  Thranduil gestured to the latter pair first.  “Tell me, how fare our neighbors in Esgaroth?” he said.


“The Lake-men continue to prosper,” Ascaron said.  “The Master salutes you by us, and says he eagerly awaits your reply to his latest communication.”


“I am sure he does,” Thranduil said dryly.  “It is well on its way to him by now, but I suspect he will find little pleasure in it.  What of our other concerns?”


“Erebor continues to be quiet,” Neldorín reported.  “The dragon has not been seen by anyone in the town, confirming the observations of our own watch.  The Dwarves continue to keep to the Iron Hills and have not made any attempt to return to Ered Mithrin.  There is currently peace in Rhûn, though there have been rumors of emissaries from Mordor abroad in the land.”


Thranduil frowned.  “I heartily dislike the sound of that,” he said.  Dol Guldur had been unusually quiet in the past year, making him suspect the Dark Lord had again been laying schemes of greater consequence than his cruel pastimes in Mirkwood.  “Has there been any rumor of their purpose?”


“Nothing for certain, only that they were seeking alliance and pledges of loyalty from the Rhûnnath.”


“Were they satisfied?”


“That we have not heard, my lord,” Ascaron said.  “The broad feeling is that times have been good in Rhûn and that there is little appetite for war.”


“That at least is fortunate.”  Thranduil shifted in his throne, plagued by the uncomfortable feeling that something of great import was moving just out of his sight and beyond his power to correct.  He resolved to strengthen the watch on their borders.  “Is there anything else?”


“Only that there have been reports of greater numbers of Orcs and Goblins in the northeast,” Tavoron said, “and that travel by the northern roads is now more dangerous.”


Thranduil grunted to himself.  That could explain the Dwarves on his road.  


“The same is true in the west,” Bregonsúl said.  “The mountains are infested with ever growing numbers of Goblins, and they have been seen more often in the valleys.  They are allied with Wargs, and together they have been harrying travelers and villages beside the river.”


“We rode as far as Rhosgobel in the south,” Tavoron continued.  “Master Radagast continues his watch and confirms that Dol Guldur has been unusually still.  He suspects the Dark Lord has been turning his thought to other lands.”


“As do I,” Thranduil said.  “Has Beorn anything to say of the Goblins in the valleys?”


“We called upon Beorn on our return from Rhosgobel,” Bregonsúl explained.  “Not only has he been obliged to cull the Goblins and Wargs, but he sends a particular warning to you, my lord.  He says that Mithrandir has been coming and going through the land, although he did not know him by that name.  When last they parted, the wizard was leading a party of Dwarves into the east.  Beorn counseled them against the old roads and directed them to yours.”


Thranduil straightened where he sat and narrowed his eyes.  He should have suspected that Mithrandir would be behind the bizarre series of events they were still attempting to resolve.  Beorn’s message answered many questions, yet explained very little.  Now Thranduil was more determined than before to discover the Dwarves’ purpose and why they insisted upon barging through his domain with neither gift nor leave.  “Is there anything else?” he asked.


Bregonsúl shrugged.  “We saw no Goblins who still drew breath, but there were many dead and everywhere great bear tracks.  It seems Beorn has the problem well in hand, my lord.”


Thranduil nodded.  “Very well.  You are all dismissed.  Rest, enjoy your reprieve, and report back to Dorthaer in three days.”


When they had gone, Thranduil turned to Linhir.  “Have you anything else?”


“Nothing of any immediate consequence,” Linhir assured him, “but we do have the celebration to plan.”


“Ah, yes.”  Now Thranduil smiled.  It may perhaps have seemed excessive to already be planning an enormous feast the morning after the autumn festival had abruptly ended, but it was to be an occasion of special magnificence, and life in Mirkwood could often be so dark that the only consolation for their hardships was merry comradery.  It was not every day that his son would attain his twentieth year by the long Elvish reckoning, each of which represented one hundred and forty-four years of the sun.  Thranduil was well into his forty-sixth, but no one was counting anymore.  “I will leave that to you.  It is early days yet, and I trust you.  Speak to Legolas about it when he returns.  My expectation is that you will give him whatever he wants and spare no expense.”


Linhir made note of it with a twisted smile.  “You are indeed fortunate your son is blessed with such a good nature,” he said, “or you would have spoiled him long ago.”


“Perhaps,” Thranduil allowed, “but he has earned the indulgence.”


He was too preoccupied to focus long on any other mundane task that day.  He spoke to Anárion about increasing the number of soldiers posted along their borders, he met and interviewed three prospective additions to the King’s Guard, sat in judgment of  a few trifling legal matters, officially reviewed the youngest ranks of the army and sent them on to their first assignment.


Finally, as night was falling and Thranduil had just made up his mind to arm himself and go out into the forest after them, a trumpet sounded at the gates to announce the return of Prince Legolas and his company.  Grimly satisfied, Thranduil returned to the great hall, took up his great oaken staff and solemnly resumed his throne, knowing where he would be expected. 


Legolas and Tauriel immediately brought their prisoners before the King, twelve wretched Dwarves weakened by starvation and despair, nearly dead on their feet.  They were a pitiful spectacle, but they still had spirit enough to turn bitter glares upon their temporary masters.


“Unbind them,” Thranduil said, choosing to speak the common tongue so that his prisoners would have the pleasure of understanding him.  “They look as though they could hardly put three steps together without falling over, not that they could escape the enchanted gates once they are closed.”


“We found them wandering north of the road, my lord,” Legolas reported as the soldiers unbound the prisoners.  “They gave no resistance.”


“Small wonder, considering their condition,” Thranduil said, then he returned his attention to the prisoners.  “What business brings you into the deep places of Mirkwood, Master Dwarves?  I trust it was worth the peril.”


At first the Dwarves offered only stony silence.  Then an older one with a stark white beard stepped up to speak for his companions.  “Our business is our own, and certainly none of yours,” he said curtly.


Thranduil arched his brow at him.  He was not really offended so much as disappointed that they could not converse with greater civility.  “You have made your business mine by entering my realm and troubling my people,” he said.  “Where were you going?”


“Out of this wretched forest,” the old Dwarf insisted.  “We have not attempted to cross it for pleasure.”


“Then why did you attempt to cross it?”


“Because we could find no better path.”


“No better path to where?”


“To our destination.”


Thranduil paused for a moment to deliberately quell his growing impatience.  Nothing useful would come of an argument.  “Who are you?” he asked.  “Where were you coming from?”


“We are but unfortunate and nameless travelers of no consequence to great lords like yourself,” the white Dwarf answered scornfully.  “Our poor homes are of no importance.”


“Perhaps great lords would take a greater interest were you not so disagreeable,” Thranduil suggested dryly.  “I ask again, where were you coming from?”


“From the west,” was the gruff answer.


Thranduil rolled his eyes in spite of himself, keenly frustrated by their insistence upon making a farce of an otherwise perfectly reasonable interrogation.  “And where were you going?” he tried again.


“To the east.”


There was an audible grumble from the soldiers, but a narrow look from Legolas silenced them.


“You are very ungracious for people who owe such a debt of gratitude,” Thranduil observed, a sneer creeping into his voice.  “Have we not been put to a great deal of trouble on your account?  Have we not rescued you from misfortunes of your own making?  Considering everything you have done, I believe the very least I might expect would be some civility.”


“And what have we done, O king?” the old Dwarf demanded.  “Is it a crime to be lost in the forest, to be hungry and thirsty, to be attacked by spiders?  Are the spiders your pets then, if killing them angers you so?”


“It is a crime to wander in my realm without leave!” Thranduil reminded them in a similar tone.  “Do you forget that you were in my kingdom, using the road that my people made?  Did you not three times importune and harass my people in the forest and provoke the spiders with your heedless clamor?  After all the disruption you have caused I am entitled to know what brings you here, and if you refuse to tell me now, I will imprison you all until you have learned a modicum of courtesy!”  He turned to Legolas.  “Take them away and secure them, each to his own cell, wherever you can.  Give them food and drink, but on no account are they to pass the doors of their cells again until at least one of them is willing to answer me.”


“Yes, my lord.”


As their prisoners were marched away into the deeps of the caverns, Lord Linhir approached him.  “Do you think it wise to so frustrate their progress, especially if Mithrandir is orchestrating their errand?”


“If their errand is so urgent, they can explain themselves and be on their way,” Thranduil insisted.  “Or Mithrandir himself may come to ransom them.  I will not be made a mockery in my own house.”


Despite their pride and legendary stubbornness, Thranduil expected the Dwarvish matter would be resolved within a few days.  Time passed especially tediously while one sat alone in the dark, but they surprised him with their determination.  Perhaps their errand was not so urgent after all.  When they tired of their captivity, he would be ready to hear them.


As expected, the Master of Esgaroth was not pleased with Thranduil’s new stipulation regarding the fair use of the waterways.  The next barge came blithely up the river, the newly dredged and beautifully maintained river, and feigned ignorance of the Elvenking’s new toll.  Perhaps they thought it a trifling matter that would not be seriously enforced, especially considering the fabulous expense of the cargo, all ordered expressly for the prince’s celebration.  But Thranduil’s instructions to his marchwardens had been firm; the barge and all its goods were refused and turned back downstream.  The Elvenking’s informants within the town provided very satisfying accounts of the furor which erupted among the tradesmen, baying for blood at the Master’s door.  The negotiations must have ended in their favor, because the barge returned in short order with the correct coinage.


The great autumn gathering had begun in preparation for winter.  There was a great deal of hunting to be done while the beasts were still fat on acorns.  Eventually it seemed the whole forest smelled pleasantly of woodsmoke and curing meat.  The one persistent frustration was that so many of their storerooms were occupied by obstinate Dwarves.  Necessity demanded that creative solutions be found, and eventually even the King had to endure the eyesore that was a great heap of grain sacks piled in the corner of his chambers.


Preparations for the great celebration continued as the date drew nearer.  The King had little time to spare fussing over details, but those tasked with such things kept him well informed.  He was seated at his table looking over a hastily scrawled summary of the completed arrangements when Gwaelas arrived bearing his supper on a tray.


“Good evening, my lord,” he said, setting it down in the space Thranduil cleared for the purpose.  “Is all progressing well?”


“Quite well,” Thranduil assured him.  “Have you anything of note for me before you go?”


Gwaelas frowned.  “Only that there have been many complaints about the dogs in the last fortnight,” he said.  “Apparently they have been stealing food more often.”


Thranduil frowned as well, and glanced at the wolves in the corner.  “Surely they know better,” he said.  “I have never seen such brazen behavior.”


“Neither have I, truth be told.  But the food is missing nonetheless.”


“Perhaps there are one or two ill-mannered culprits among them,” Thranduil allowed.  “See that everyone knows to watch them closely and bring the offenders to me.  I would not have the discipline in my household deteriorate.”


Gwaelas twitched strangely, as though the comment struck him in an odd way.  “Yes, my lord.”


Thranduil noted his reaction, but was unable to account for it.  Gwaelas had seemed unusually anxious recently, but Thranduil was not yet inclined to pry into the cause.  Gwaelas would confide in him when the time was right.  “Very well,” he said simply.  “Go feed yourself.”







Gwaelas took his leave of the King and returned to the kitchens.  He had still said nothing to Thranduil about Galion and his shortcomings, and the omission haunted him.  The off-hand comment about the deteriorating discipline in the household struck too near.  He had been keeping a loose watch on his cousin as often as his duties would allow, probably not often enough, and now he urgently needed to see that all was well in the cellars for his own peace of mind.


The kitchens were alive with noise and firelight and lively singing.  “Ho, Gwaelas!” Halagos called to him over the din, arranging generous cuts of venison on laden trays for the other noble members of the household.  “Back so soon!  The King is not dissatisfied, I trust?”


“Not at all,” Gwaelas assured him.  “What do you have for me tonight?”


“Ah!” Halagos smiled and produced another tray set apart from the others.  “Just as you like it,” he said, nodding at the generous portions of cheese beside a fresh bread roll with slices of smoked boar stuffed inside.


“Excellent,” Gwaelas said with genuine appreciation.  “Could you put it aside for a moment?  I must first visit the cellars.”


Halagos shrugged.  “As you wish,” he said.  “It will be there by the door.  We have no room for it back here.”


“Thank you.”


Gwaelas hurried down the corridor, anxious to complete his errand and return for his supper.  The cellar doors were closed when he reached them, and nothing seemed obviously out of place.  Galion sat over his own rations at the table and scowled as Gwaelas entered.


“Good evening, cousin,” he said with none of the welcome the greeting implied.  “What brings you down here so late?  Surely something of greater consequence than concern about me.”


“You know very well why I trouble myself to come,” Gwaelas replied in much the same tone.  He glanced over the open ledger, noting that the entries were complete though the ink was fresh and wet.  All the storeroom doors were secured, and the floor was swept.  If Galion was still abusing his station, he was better about hiding it now.


“It has been thirty years,” Galion complained.  “I begin to suspect you have no wish to trust me.”


“Oh, I wish I could,” Gwaelas countered sharply.  “Do you imagine I enjoy the extra work and worry of looking after you?”  He scrutinized Galion’s plate and did not see anything he was not entitled to.  “Continue to perform as you should, and eventually I will trust you.  Mind the details, especially with an event of such significance upon us.” 


Galion turned to him with a withering glare.  “Rest assured, I will not shame you by ruining the Prince’s celebration.”


Gwaelas turned a narrow glance on him in return, and then took his leave.  On the way out, he crossed paths with Helegil, the keeper of the keys, and stopped him with a gesture.  “How fare our reluctant guests?” he asked.  


Helegil sighed and rolled his eyes.  “They are all alive and well enough, fed and watered, and none of them have offered so much of a word to any of us.  I ask them every night if they have anything to offer the King, to no avail.  They might as well be made of stone.”  


Gwaelas nodded.  “Keep at them,” he said.  “We must prove at least as stubborn as they are.”


He returned to the kitchens, satisfied that Galion was behaving himself, and by now quite hungry.  When he went to collect his tray, however, the bread and meat was missing along with half the cheese.  Immediately suspicious, Gwaelas looked into the corridor and indeed found one of the hounds skulking there.  He hissed at her, and she flattened her ears in a sheepish expression.  He had not caught her in the act, and so could not definitively accuse her of the theft, however incriminating the circumstances.   


“I have my eye on you,” he said sternly as she tucked tail and trotted away.  


It seemed everything in the Elvenking’s halls had been knocked slightly off-kilter lately.  The chaos unsettled him.  The sooner they could put things right the better.  




Chapter 42 - The Affairs of Wizards III



The festive evening in Prince Legolas’ honor was a grand success.  The caverns rang with music and song, and everyone was able for at least once night to partake in luxuries usually reserved for the King’s table.  For one night no one had any worries, no one was without a host of friends, and no one gave any thought to the myriad dangers which lurked in the shadows of Mirkwood.  There would be time enough to remember them in the morning.  


When morning came, however, it seemed very few were willing to face it.  The wine had been flowing freely all night, and many revelers were inclined to retreat into bed before resuming their regular duties.  Some could afford the indulgence, but there was still a household to be run, and indeed a great mess to be cleaned up.  


Gwaelas was not certain what inspired that restless itch in the back of his mind, a nagging doubt that would not be satisfied until he had checked on Galion in the cellars.  Great celebrations were always difficult to manage in the cellars, especially when it came to keeping the ledger up to date, and to top it all a shipment of barrels from Esgaroth had arrived the previous day.  If Galion had managed all the coming and going to his satisfaction, Gwaelas thought he may finally be convinced of his competence.  


The corridors were unusually quiet after all the rampant merriment had been spent, and Gwaelas was not encouraged to find the cellar door standing open again, but perhaps that could be forgiven after such a night.  His forgiving attitude was strained as he entered to find the place in complete disarray, the storerooms pillaged and the spoils trampled.  He saw Galion there speaking with Helegil, but before he could complain about the slovenly conditions he read their faces and recognized sheer panic.  


Gwaelas’ steps faltered for a moment.  “What has happened?” he demanded, dread growing in his own gut.  


“The Dwarves!” Helegil exclaimed, looking as though he might be sick.  “They have vanished!”


“What?”  Now Gwaelas shared their trepidation.  “How?  When?  Did you make your rounds last night?”


Helegil swallowed nervously.  “I must confess I did not,” he said.  “Galion invited me to drink with him while he awaited help with the barrels, but the wine was stronger than I expected and I regret to say I . . . fell asleep.”


Gwaelas was more horrified by each emerging detail.  He turned to Galion with a poisonous look.  “Am I to understand,” he began sternly, “that you plied the keeper of the keys with the King’s best wine while you were both on duty, and that you then became so drunk that you were sleeping at your posts, and now the King’s prisoners have gone?”


“The doors were still locked!” Helegil protested desperately.  “The keys are still on my belt!”


“They must have escaped by some magic contrivance,” Galion said, casting about for any explanation.  He looked positively ill.


“Well, unfortunately, we shall never know!” Gwaelas shouted, furious.  “What a pity there was no one standing guard!”


“Master Gwaelas!”  Guardsman Tavoron had appeared at the door.  “The King summons you.”


Gwaelas felt sick again as the angry flush drained from his face.  “I hope you realize what you have done,” he hissed at Galion before he turned to go.  “I cannot protect you from this.  We must all face the consequences now.”  







Thranduil had not quite decided whether he would sleep away the morning or press on until the close of day.  He was still in an excellent frame of mind, drifting in the echoes of the good humor of the previous evening.  Everything had been perfect, as rarely anything was anymore.  His one complaint, if such it must be called, was that he had heard rumor of the soldiers on duty throughout the palace and even on the Night Watch partaking of the festivities to an irresponsible degree.  As much as he wished to extend the gaiety to everyone, he must insist that the security of his realm not be compromised.  He would speak to Gwaelas about it when he arrived.


When Gwaelas did finally appear at the door, he looked out of sorts.  “You asked for me, my lord,” he said.


Thranduil knew he would eventually have to ask him about his deteriorating disposition as well.  All in good time.  “Yes,” he replied.  “Before I release you, I am afraid something rather serious has occurred which I must bring to your attention.”


“Of course, sire,” Gwaelas agreed, keeping himself at a strange distance.  “It is indeed a most grievous breach of trust, and though I cannot bear the entirety of the blame, I must accept my part and beg your pardon.”


Thranduil frowned.  “You can hardly be faulted for the poor judgment of others,” he said, assuming Gwaelas had heard the same rumors.  


“Perhaps not,” Gwaelas allowed, “but had I not concealed his shortcomings from you in the past, we might have prevented a disaster of this magnitude.”


Thranduil stopped cold, realizing they were having two very different but parallel conversations, and he did not like the tenor of what Gwaelas was describing.  “What disaster?” he asked, very deliberately.  


Gwaelas, apparently coming to the same realization, turned very pale.







All the servants assigned to the cellars stood at attention in ranks amidst the inexcusable disorder of the place, stewing in their own guilt as the King walked slowly through their dysfunction.  The incriminating detritus of the previous night had not yet been cleared away, discarded cheese rinds, empty flagons dripping with wine, plates and trays stacked and pushed aside, doors ajar which should be locked.  


Thranduil observed it all in severe silence, holding back the storm of disbelief and smoldering indignation which blackened his thoughts.  He did not know exactly how to read the ledger, but a cursory glance told him it was out of date and sloppily kept.  


“I was under the impression,” he said at last, dreadfully calm, “that I compensated you all very well for your service, treated you fairly, even indulged you with many favors, and yet you seem to have no compunction about stealing from me.”  He slammed the ledger closed, the first physical manifestation of his displeasure.  “What am I to do with you?” he asked.  “How am I to repay this stunning dereliction of duty which resulted in the unprecedented breach we have discovered this morning?”


No one dared answer him.


“The prisoners may indeed have escaped by magic, as Galion has proposed,” Lord Linhir ventured to suggest.  “Perhaps Mithrandir may yet be involved.”


“Mithrandir would not dare!” Thranduil snarled.  “He may bend me to his will and keep his own counsel, but even he has tact enough to not rob my halls like a common thief.  And I think there was less magic about it than you expect.”  He glanced at the floor to prove his suspicion, and it took him only a moment to pick out the clumsy tread of a crowd of Dwarves through the trampled cakes and spilled wine.  The trail led him directly to the great trapdoor in the floor.  “The barrels were released into the river last night, were they not?” he asked pointedly.  “Did no one feel the weight of them?”


Again, his only answer was an extremely awkward silence.  


Thranduil returned to the shamefaced assembly, snatched the ring of keys off Helegil’s belt and thrust it at Linhir.  “Take them all and secure them in the cells our guests so cleverly vacated until I have determined a suitable punishment,” he said.


No one spoke or even looked up as they filed past him.  Thranduil would be certain to obtain an accurate list of their names and histories from Linhir.  He caught Gwaelas ungently by the arm to stop him following the others.  “Not you,” he growled.  “I would like to hear exactly what you have to say for yourself.”


Gwaelas cringed, but he was man enough to stand and receive whatever was coming to him.  “Sire,” he said, “I am mortified.”


“And rightly so,” Thranduil agreed sharply.  Then he softened.  “Yet the fault was not entirely yours, and I will not punish you.  You spoke no lie, and I was perhaps too ready to attribute your virtues to all your relations.  But you will forgive me if I never accept another of your recommendations on these matters.”


“I doubt I shall ever venture to make another, my lord,” Gwaelas assured him.  


“What of your prisoners, sire?” Guardsman Neldorín asked.  “Shall we go after them?”


“To what purpose?” Thranduil asked.  “They are halfway to Esgaroth by now, and by the time you close the distance they will have arrived there.  Let them go.  We shall see what the Lake-men make of them.”


The initial violence of Thranduil’s anger was soon spent, and before the following dawn he had personally released and sternly counseled the majority of those servants he had imprisoned.  He conditionally restored them to their posts, willing to give them a chance to redeem themselves, and they were all very grateful for the opportunity.  There were only two who had permanently forfeited their privileged positions.  Galion and Helegil would sit in their cells a while longer until he decided what to do with them.  As they had proven themselves unworthy of any greater trust, they may very well spend the next several years shoveling nightsoil in the stables.  


It was only a few days later that Thranduil’s raftsmen returned from Esgaroth in high dudgeon, and burst in upon the King while he was discussing the shifting of troops on the southern border with Linhir and Legolas.  “How is it, my lord, that your prisoners have escaped?” the first of them demanded.  “We have seen them, all fourteen of them, in Esgaroth!”


“Yes,” Thranduil replied dryly, “we assumed that would be their destination the morning after they slipped their bonds, considering the manner of their escape.”


“And what manner was that?” the raftsman sneered.  “Surely someone was treasonously negligent to have lost them all.”


Thranduil glowered at him from his throne.  “Do not be so quick to condemn your fellows,” he said.  “Or did you not notice any barrels riding suspiciously low in the water?”


“We did, but—”  Suddenly realizing the implications of the statement, the raftsmen shut their mouths, and their indignation became keen regret.


Thranduil saw the truth chasten them.  “Do not imagine you are blameless in this sad drama of neglected opportunities,” he said, “but I have no wish to imprison any more of my household, so you will all oblige me by taking a lesson or two from the experience.”


They bit their tongues lest they say anything more than what was required of them.  “Yes, my lord.”


“Now,” Thranduil said, leaning into the conversation rather than dismissing them, “we have all been quite curious.  How did the Lake-men receive our vagrant Dwarves?  Did they have names after all?” 


“They claimed to be Ereborrim, no less than Thorin son of Thrain, King Under the Mountain, come to reclaim his realm.”


“Oh, yes?”  Thranduil was piqued with new interest.  The revelation was not wholly unexpected, if indeed he had troubled himself to entertain the possibility.  He had only seen Thorin once before, and had not given him a great deal of consideration.  Their origin explained the Dwarves’ vehement hostility towards him, even if he still considered it unjustified.  “But I notice you mentioned fourteen.  The small one was still with them?”


“Yes, my lord.  He is not a Dwarf at all, but a Halfling from Eriador.  By all accounts his kind never leave their own country, so I wonder that he finds himself so far east.”


“So does he, I imagine,” Thranduil said with a wry expression.  The more he learned about the rag-tag quest, the more he recognized the stamp of Mithrandir’s chaotic logic.  Those caught in its trawl were often not entirely sure how it happened.  “What of the Master?  How did he receive my escaped prisoners?”


“The Master seemed reluctant to believe their claims, both of their blood and their purpose, but his misgivings were overcome by the clamor of the people who believe the old songs are coming true, that prosperity will follow the mountain king’s return.”


Thranduil felt much less optimistic.  In his experience, romantic ballads were not reliable sources of prophecy, especially not ones which failed to mention a complication so consequential as a dragon.  “I fear what comes of this fool’s errand will fall far short of their expectations,” he said.  “You may return to your posts.”


When they had gone, he spoke more candidly to his companions.  “I want the Dragon Watch strengthened at once,” he told Legolas.  “Whatever Thorin and his companions intend to do, any misstep will likely stir Smaug from his hold.”


“Do you believe they truly intend to challenge the dragon for possession of the mountain?” Legolas asked.


“I doubt it,” Thranduil scoffed.  “What are thirteen Dwarves to Smaug?  At best, I suspect they intend to recover whatever treasure they can by stealth.  At worst, they have indeed come with some ludicrous hope of slaying the beast and will succeed only in loosing him upon the rest of us.”


“What are we to do in that event?” Linhir asked grimly.


“There is not much that can be done,” Thranduil admitted, “except to flee the flames and take as many into the caverns as we can.  But perhaps I am being too hasty.  Perhaps Mithrandir has orchestrated this whole endeavor, and has entrusted to them some master plan.”  He sighed, unable to believe it however badly he wanted it to be true.  “If not, I would much prefer they leave well enough alone.  The dragon has lain quiet for years; what good can come of waking it?”


“They must understand the danger better than anyone,” Linhir reasoned.  “Surely they would not attempt to reenter the mountain without some reasonable hope of success.”


“We can only pray that is the case,” Thranduil said.  “We shall see soon enough, whatever happens.  No treasure will come back through the wood without my having something to say about it, not after all the trouble they put us to.  More likely Erebor will be their tomb, condemned by their own avarice.  That gold already has a great deal of blood on it.”  He stood and summoned his guard.  “Felanthir!”


The Guardsman came and presented himself to the King.  “What is your command, my lord?”


“Inform Commander Dorthaer that I wish three pairs of you to be sent north as soon as possible,” Thranduil said, “to the shores of the lake and farther if they dare.  I want to know what becomes of Thorin and his quest.”


“What of the rest of us?” Legolas asked when Felanthir had gone.  “What are we to do?”


“We shall do what we do best,” Thranduil said.  “We shall wait, and we shall be ready.  Stand the army.”



Chapter 43 ~ The Affairs of Wizards IV





Preparations for the dragon’s rampage began immediately.  The people were warned of the danger and the most vulnerable were moved into the caverns.  The soldiers were put on alert, and the Dragon Watch stood ready to sound the alarm.  Great stores of provisions were gathered and packed into easily-accessible bundles to be quickly taken wherever they may be needed.  Everything was ready before Thorin and his Dwarves had even left the comforts of Esgaroth, as Thranduil learned from his spies.  The King under the Mountain had enjoyed the hospitality of the Master for a full fortnight before finally continuing his quest.  The delay was at once welcomed and resented; if they were to face a ruinous disaster, there was some feeling that it would be best to end the agony of suspense sooner rather than later.  Still, the news gave Thranduil some mirthless satisfaction as he imagined the expense the Master must have endured in the keeping of them.  


All was quiet for yet another fortnight, and some began to wonder if the dragon was alive at all.  It had been a considerable count of years since he had been seen.  Then strange flashes of light were observed on the slopes of Erebor in the deepest hours of the night, sending a new wave of grim expectation coursing through the capital.  The Dragon Watch hesitated to sound the alarm, but the King was called, and he observed the intermittent lights with them until dawn.  Nothing seemed to come of them, but the alert was not lessened.


“I want them to remain at the ready,” Thranduil was saying to Legolas as they returned into the caverns that evening.  They were both clad in the armored scales of the woodland scouts, armed for battle after a tense day spent organizing the army.  Thranduil wore Orcrist at his hip in the forlorn hope that the ancient blade which saw service against Balrogs could perhaps be effective against a dragon.  “Rotate them often, but I want everyone prepared to move at a moment’s notice.  This waiting is beginning to take its toll on everyone.”


“Yes, my lord,” Legolas replied.  “Would every three hours be sufficient?”


“Yes, quite,” Thranduil agreed.  “And see that they issue an extra half ration of wine.”  He slowed to a weary stop, the tread of his armored boots sounding uncharacteristically heavy in the corridor.  The servants were parading into the dining hall with the evening’s fare, and inside a harpist had begun to play a soothing melody.  Thranduil was indeed hungry, but neither of them was dressed appropriately, and the thought of shedding their arms and armor for a formal dinner seemed unnecessarily daunting.  He turned to Legolas with the ghost of a smile.  “Would you fancy supper in the open air?” he asked.


Legolas returned his smile with a knowing gleam in his eye.  “Perhaps somewhere with a view of the mountain?” he suggested.


Thranduil strode into the golden light of the hall and immediately commanded the attention of the entire room.  “Take all this,” he said, “and follow me.  We shall take our meal with the Night Watch.”  He turned to go, but paused to point out the harpist.  “You too.”


Darkness was already falling as the impromptu procession ascended the hill, for autumn was deepening.  The moon had not yet risen, but the sky was clear and the cold light of the stars illuminated their way.  All the Guardsmen assigned to the Dragon and Night Watches leapt to attention as both the King and the Prince unexpectedly appeared out of the gloom.


“As you were,” Thranduil bid them, putting them at ease.  “We bring no ill tidings, merely companionship and refreshment.”


Their grim demeanor lightened noticeably despite their renowned discipline, and a rumble of appreciation greeted the King’s laden entourage.  Thranduil threw more wood onto the modest fire and took his place on the uncut stones of his throne as the harpist again struck up his tune.  The servants lay down their platters and returned as they had come, leaving the King and his soldiers to their vigil.


Thranduil knew his Guardsmen had recently been required to expend a great deal of extra effort in the performance of their duties, and he was not sorry to share the bounties of his table with them as a timely reward.  A strong comradery existed among the King’s Guard, the most formidable soldiers in all the wood, a comradery the King himself shared as much as the difference in rank allowed.  He knew their names, their families, and certainly considered them friends.  They were bonded in spirit if not in blood, though it was no small thing to bleed together as often as they had.  


“Lancaeron, how fare your sons?” Thranduil asked as they lingered over their wine.  They had allowed the fire to fade into glowing embers to better acclimate their eyes to the darkness.  The Watch was still on duty after all.  “It has been some time since you have given me news of them.”


“The eldest has completed the apprenticeship you arranged with Anglos the smith, my lord,” Lancaeron answered proudly.  “He always was more a craftsman than a soldier.  The youngest, however, is still keen to join our number someday.”


“Tell him to apply himself well,” Thranduil said, “and that I await word of his progress.”  He turned to another of his favorites.  “Neldorín, I understand your son is no longer a babe in arms.  Where are his interests inclined?” 


“Until now, he has most aspired to be you, my lord,” Neldorín laughed.  “Now, as a child of twenty, he is beginning to have more realistic ambitions.  I expect he will likely pursue a military career, but he has time yet to explore many possibilities.”


“Indeed,” Thranduil agreed.  “I see we have our new recruits among us tonight.”  Only days before, he had officially inducted the three candidates he had been considering.  “Roscallon, Baroval, and Dramegor,” he said, pointing them out and committing their names to memory.  “No doubt we shall all know you better in days to come.”


“My lord!” Tavoron shouted urgently from the dark.  “The lights again!”


They were all on their feet at once, all frivolity forgotten.  Thranduil blinked the last of the firelight out of his eyes and joined the others of the Dragon Watch on the eastern crest of the hill.  Tavoron immediately surrendered his field glass to the King so that he might see the drama more clearly, but there was little to be seen.


“I saw the light on the slopes,” Tavoron explained, “much like last night.”


Thranduil sighed, wearied of the tease.  “It seems it has disappeared again.  What is that wretched beast playing at?”


They stood in brittle silence, all eyes trained on the mountain.  The moon had begun to rise, shedding silvery light in the dark places of the valley, glinting off the Long Lake.  Only a cold breeze disturbed the stillness.  


“There!” Ascaron yelped suddenly, though they had all seen it.  “In the valley!”


Thranduil grimly lifted the field glass again, training it on the fiery glow that had appeared on the northern shore of the lake.  Smaug had left the mountain at last and was bearing down on Esgaroth, exactly as he had feared.  They were powerless to do more than watch as the Lake-men prepared their meager defense.  


Tavoron blew the horn call which signaled the dragon’s sighting, and the forest beneath them began to stir with frenetic activity.  Lancaeron lay a hand on the King’s arm.  “My lord, you must return to the caverns.”


Thranduil shrugged him off.  “No,” he said.  “Not yet.”  


It was a heroic and tragic stand.  Esgaroth’s bridge was thrown down as the town prepared to withstand a fiery siege.  Smaug swept over it spewing a shower of withering flame, pelted by impotent arrows.  He wheeled about in midair for another pass, blasting the town with dragon fire again and again while the citizens stubbornly threw water on the worst conflagrations.  


“They have no defense,” Legolas said miserably.  “What weapon could pierce that dragon?”


“It is nobly done,” Thranduil replied, his voice heavy, “however futile it may be.  It may soon be our part to do the same.”


The battle could not endure for long.  It was difficult to watch as the fires grew beyond all control, as desperate people crowded into boats, as the archers gave up their hopeless efforts and dove into the water.  The monster was impervious, destroying the town at will.  Doubtless he would take the fleeing boats as well in his own time.  Thranduil felt sick at heart, sorry to see the waste of so many innocent lives, fearing his own people would face the same fate.  Again he cursed Thorin, all his paternity, and the greed which had twice brought this ruin upon them.


There was a sudden intake of breath from the whole company as Smaug’s flight was violently checked.  The beast peeled away from the burning town, climbing into the sky with frantic beats of his enormous wings.  


“What is happening?”


“Has he been wounded?”


“How?”


Thranduil did not answer, hardly able to believe his own eyes.  The dragon’s jarring scream finally reached them on the air as his body stalled in its flight, his fire failed, and what remained of him fell onto the burning ruin of Esgaroth with a tremendous crash.  A great steam went up and rolled over the surface of the lake, an eerie fog in the sudden stillness.


They were all stricken dumb by the sight, waiting as if they expected Smaug to climb out of the wreck and continue his attack.  It was too incredible.


“It appears there are some worthy bowmen in Esgaroth,” Thranduil finally said, lowering the field glass with a grim smile.  “That must have been a mighty shot!  I would like to meet the one who loosed that arrow, if indeed he has survived his victory.”


“I imagine none of this bodes well for the King under the Mountain,” Legolas observed.


Thranduil sighed.  “No.  I fear we have heard the last of Thorin Oakenshield and his company.  He would have done better to have remained my guest.  It is an ill wind, all the same, that blows no one any good.  Again it falls to us to contain the damage.”


“Will you march on Erebor?” Legolas asked, though it seemed he already expected the answer.


“I cannot see that we have a choice,” Thranduil confirmed, turning away from the smoldering spectacle to take the new challenge in hand.  “As Mithrandir is wont to remind us, we are tasked with keeping order in this region.  No one has forgotten the fabled wealth of Thrór, and now his hoard lies naked to all comers.  We will march in force to secure it for the rightful heirs lest it become a den of thieves and villains overnight.”


“Can we not instead hold it for Eryn Galen, my lord?” Dramegor asked, an aggressive glint in his eye. 


Thranduil frowned at him.  His loyalty and skill were beyond question, but clearly the young Guardsman had a great deal yet to learn of the world.  “Why?” he asked flatly.  “I have no desire to hold Erebor, nor have I any claim upon it, and you are a fool if you imagine Thrór’s kinsmen in the Iron Hills will tolerate any challenge for his throne.”  He surveyed them all severely, dampening all thoughts of plunder before they had a chance to seriously consider them.  “It is perilous to stand between the Dwarves and anything they consider their own,” he added, remembering Doriath.  “I had the misfortune to do so once.  I will not do it again, particularly not when it would risk the safety of my own realm.”


It seemed they had taken his point.  Truthfully, Thranduil had not given up all hope of sharing in the spoils of Smaug’s downfall, but the danger in dragon treasure came in the claiming of it.  Thrór’s heirs may yet be constrained by the demands of honor to make some offer of compensation to the aggrieved Lake-men and to the Elves who held the Mountain in trust for them.  If not, Thranduil may be obliged to put his army to use exerting a bit of coercion on behalf of the dragon-slayers at least.  Some Dwarf-lords could be gracious enough, but it was no good taking manners for granted when such a fabulous hoard was concerned.


“Come then,” he said, satisfied that he had made himself clear.  “We have at most a day to prepare.  I want to march before the next dawn.”







The soldiers standing at the capital were quickly mustered into marching order.  Thranduil chose to bring a considerable number of spearmen and archers, wanting to make an impressive show of force if necessary, but by no means his entire army.  The provisions which had been gathered against a possible dragon attack were easily transferred to the baggage carts, and the whole mass of them was ready to march before the sunrise as the King wished.

Thranduil went mounted on his great dappled war horse, Espalass, wearing his crown and a mantle of gray and crimson over his gleaming plate armor.  He was still armed with Orcrist, his own sword strapped to his saddle.  His soldiers were also impressively arrayed, as all of them had been ordered to take a moment to polish the scales on their armored tunics.  A superfluous number of green banners and pennons fluttered on burnished lances above the ranks, and the King’s silvery wolves walked among them.  They were a formidable sight as they left the trees and entered the open plains in the cold moonlight, the first rosy hint of dawn glinting on a thousand spears.  


The King led the other mounted members of his entourage, among them Lord Galadhmir and the senior Guardsmen.  He had left Legolas to reign in his stead, anticipating they would not be gone longer than a fortnight, perhaps a month at most.  No doubt news of Smaug’s death had already spread widely through the land, and the Dwarves from the Iron Hills may not require any message from him to begin their march.  The crows had certainly noted the recent upheavals, and flocks of them gathered above the army in hopes of claiming the bloody spoils of war.


They followed the course of the river until it turned southeast, then halted for the night to rest their horses and distribute rations.  In the morning they would leave the river and strike out directly toward Erebor in the northeast.  


They reformed the ranks with the sunrise and were on the march again within the hour.  But they had not left the river far behind before a messenger ran forward from the rear and overtook the King in the vanguard.  “Stay, my lord!” he cried, bounding to a stop in the way of the horses.  


Thranduil raised a hand, calling a halt lest they all pile up on one another.  “Why have we stopped, captain?” he asked, his tolerant tone masking an annoyance which awaited a satisfactory answer.


“Messengers have arrived on the river from Esgaroth, my lord,” the captain explained.  “They beg an audience with you.  They are sent by the dragon-slayer.”


Thranduil was immediately intrigued.  “Very well.  I shall hear them.”  He turned his horse out of the vanguard, signaling his mounted Guardsmen to follow.  They rode to the rear of the column and were met by eight bedraggled Men standing beside four boats on the riverbank.


“My lord!” the first among them greeted the King.  They all bowed as he reined Espalass to a halt before them.  “It is fortunate beyond hope that we find you here!  We are sent by Bard the bowman, of the house of Girion, the dragon-slayer.  Lake-town is destroyed and its people are left destitute.  He remembers the many kindnesses you have shown the Lake-men in the past, and he prays that you pity them once again lest many more perish.”


Thranduil recognized the name of Girion, the final ill-fated Lord of Dale.  “I am grieved to hear of your adversity,” he said.  “I suspected that those who survived the fire would require aid, and I have already arranged that some be sent.  It was our purpose to march at once to secure the Mountain against plunderers, but I may consider changing our course if the need is dire.”


“The need is dire, my lord,” the messenger confirmed.  “Your boats were received with gratitude as we set out, but they will not suffice.  I fear many will soon succumb to their suffering if more food and better shelter cannot be found.”


Thranduil scowled and considered the situation.  The delay was irksome, but he could not leave the innocents of Esgaroth to starve and freeze in the elements.  “You may tell Bard the dragon-slayer that I remember the friendship of Esgaroth and of Dale,” he said, “and that I would not have his people starve in the wilds.  You may return now with whatever your boats may carry, but it may be some days before my army may arrive at the Lake.  The marshes will complicate our passing.”


The Lake-men thanked him effusively.  Thranduil sent Tavoron with them to manage the loading of their boats out of the army’s stores.  “Neldorín,” he said, turning to another of his mounted Guardsmen, “go at once and inform Prince Legolas and Lord Linhir of Bard’s need.  Tell them to replenish our provisions by boat to Esgaroth, and to send also timber and tools that shelters may be built for the survivors.  Return with them and rejoin us at the Lake.”


Neldorín nodded.  “Yes, my lord.”  He turned his horse and galloped back the way they had come.  Thranduil turned in the opposite direction and rode back to the head of the column to reorient the vanguard.  


“I do not fancy a ride through the marshes,” Lord Galadhmir grumbled when Thranduil explained the change of plans.


“Nor do I,” Thranduil confessed, “but I cannot see another way.  We shall skirt the edge as near as we dare.”


The next two days were cold and wet and miserable, though the weather could not be blamed for it.  The marshes had grown well beyond their former borders, and it was no easy feat for an army to pick its way through in good order.  The Elves were lightfooted, but there was only so much anyone could do against a mire like that.  It was fortunate that they had sent most of their provisions ahead in the boats, or else the baggage carts would not have made the crossing.


When they finally arrived within sight of Esgaroth’s ruin, their once resplendent soldiers were knee-deep in mud.  The horses were particularly foul.  Thranduil’s gray charger was caked in it from hooves to hocks, and his great white tail was a horror.  The King had been obliged to tie it up lest the tetchy stallion continue to swat him with muck.  


Despite their frightful appearance, they were enthusiastically welcomed.  A grim-faced Man rushed out to meet them, bowing his head and opening his arms in greeting.  “My Lord Thranduil!” he said.  “Your generosity has saved us again!  Our messengers returned yesterday before all hope.  I am Bard, who sent them to you, and I am most gratified to welcome you to what remains Lake-town.”


“We are gratified to be of service to you,” Thranduil replied graciously, though in a dispassionate tone which betrayed his worn patience.  “The route was rather out of our way, but we could not deny succor to the dragon-slayer who spared us the fire.”


Bard bowed again, acknowledging the Elvenking’s recognition.  “Fortune smiled upon me that night,” he said simply.  “It was my honor to finish the work begun by our fathers in the days of Dale’s fall.”  


Thranduil dismounted and gave his horse to his attendants.  Already the work of unpacking and erecting the pavilions had begun behind him.  “Tell me, Master Bowman, son of the line of Girion,” he said, leaving to walk with Bard, “whose authority rules this remnant, yours or the Master’s?  I must know who I am dealing with.”


“That is still a point of some contention,” Bard admitted wearily.  “The people are divided between us.”


“That is not a matter to be left in dispute,” Thranduil said.  “Is the Master well?”


“Well enough,” Bard scoffed.  “He is cold and uncomfortable, but unhurt.”


“Summon him here, and any other representatives the people have chosen for themselves.”


Thranduil waited while the informal council slowly coalesced around him.  Many curious onlookers had gathered by the time Bard returned with Master and a handful of dour individuals Thranduil assumed to be the most outspoken citizens.  Thranduil looked them over with a stern eye, recognizing the cold courage of men who had come alive through a cataclysm.  The Master was the only exception.  He looked bitter and resentful, still damp and shivering beneath a blanket.


“We must settle the matter of local jurisdiction before all else,” Thranduil said.  “Who would claim it?”


“I am still Master here,” the Master insisted, “duly elected and vested with the only legitimate authority in Lake-town.”


“We would have Bard,” the others insisted.  “Away with the old money-counters.”


“They have no right to depose me!” the Master countered.  “The Elvenking will not be party to this treachery.  He will uphold the old law.”


“That remains to be seen,” Thranduil said flatly, taking some umbrage at being told how he would behave.  “What has Bard to say for himself?”


Bard sighed.  “My fathers were lords of Dale,” he said at last, clear enough for all to hear, “a broken realm of days long past.  The Master is correct to say I have no claim upon Esgaroth, and I will not challenge him.  Still,” he continued in a voice intended only for close company, “I suspect his vehemence is inspired less by a conviction to do his duty than by a desire to preserve the privilege to which he is accustomed and to avoid what he calls ‘the rule of mere fighting men.’”


Thranduil was offended by the comment, which had surely been Bard’s intention in repeating it.  He turned a dark look upon the Master, who shrank farther into his blanket.  From his earliest years and throughout all the upheaval of his life, Thranduil’s deepest identity had been that of a warrior before all else, and he shared Bard’s obvious frustration with small men of numbers who had little regard for soldiers and yet proved themselves useless in crisis.  He took a menacing step forward in all his mud-crusted regalia.  “Do not be so quick to dismiss the wisdom of the fighting men, my lord,” he advised the Master.  “There are many lessons to be learned on the battlefield which cannot be found in your counting houses or libraries.”  


He prolonged the awkward moment a while longer before turning again to the rest of the assembly.  “Very well,” he said.  “Bard does not wish to claim the lordship of Esgaroth, so the Master will retain his rank and its attendant duties henceforth.  First among those will be to arrange for the comfort and well-being of his subjects.”  He pointed the Master back toward the bustling Elvish host.  “Address yourself to Lord Galadhmir, my lord, and he will supply your needs.”


The Master looked as though he might object, and would no doubt have preferred to retreat back into the negligible warmth of his shelter, but Thranduil’s baleful expression convinced him to attend his neglected duties instead. 


There was a great deal left to be done before sunset, but by the time the darkness swept a deeper chill over the valley all the displaced citizens of Esgaroth had found somewhere to shelter.  The Elves largely went without, better able to withstand the ravages of the wind and weather than the women and children of the Lake, though they kindled many fires along the shore for cheer and comfort.  Their singing helped to lighten the dismal atmosphere of the camp, so near the place of the dragon’s destruction.  


Thranduil was taking a moment to collect himself in the warm lamplight of his pavilion, finally reasonably comfortable after the tiresome trek across the marshes.  It was remarkable how much a simple change of clothes could improve his mood.  Gwaelas had done him the service of rinsing the mud off his armor, and now Thranduil was taking the trouble to polish it himself, exactly as he expected the rest of his soldiers to be attending their own gear.  His magnificent cloak had also been washed, and hung outside in the wind to dry.  


The cold ground had been overlaid with woven carpets, providing as much luxury as could be expected while on the march.  Two of the dogs lay in the corner, watching him with benign disinterest, hoping to soon be fed.  Thranduil had learned to appreciate small moments of peace where he could find them.  They would likely remain there for several days while they waited to be resupplied, and in the meantime he intended to acquaint himself with the important personages emerging from the new order of things.  The Bowman was particularly intriguing.  


Commander Dorthaer ducked briefly inside.  “He has come, my lord,” he said.


Thranduil smiled to himself.  “Show him in.”


Bard entered the pavilion without escort, looking apprehensive and out of place.  The wolves rose and growled, but sank back down with a huff when they were reprimanded.  “You sent for me, my lord?”


“I did,” Thranduil said.  He did not rise from his cushion, but rather indicated that Bard should seat himself opposite him.  “I would know you better, Master Bowman.  Tell me about yourself.”


Bard hesitated, apparently bemused by the request.  


Thranduil looked up from polishing his armor.  “Ancestors, children, aspirations?” he suggested amicably.  


“Oh.”  Bard reoriented himself.  “You already know the most interesting particulars of my ancestry, my lord.  I was born in Lake-town, I lived there all my life.  I was a small child when the city burned and you rode to our aid the first time.”  A brief hint of a smile soon faded.  “Why do you care, my lord?”


Thranduil smiled.  He set his armor aside, stood, and poured two cups of wine.  “It behooves me to know all I can of the lords with whom I share this corner of the world,” he said, offering one to Bard.  “Esgaroth is destroyed, the dragon is dead, the Dwarves will soon return to Erebor.  Have you no wish to see Dale rebuilt?”


A light was kindled in Bard’s dark eyes as he recognized Thranduil’s tacit support.  He accepted the cup with new ease.  “I confess I have thought of it,” he said, “though there has been little time in these days for fanciful hopes.”


“I would hardly call it a fanciful hope now,” Thranduil said, resuming his seat.  “I would almost call it a certainty.  The worst is over.  Winter will pass and spring will bring new opportunities.  Dale will rise again with the wildflowers.”  


“I pray you are right, my lord,” Bard agreed with growing enthusiasm.  “I have a son, Bain, and I would be very glad to build a better future for him, to reclaim his birthright, to see the city of my fathers renewed.”


“I believe you will,” Thranduil said.  “The dragon-slayer deserves no less.”  




Six days passed before a new fleet of Elvish boats appeared out of the morning mist.  With their arrival, the work began in earnest.  The army collected their new provisions and prepared to march once more.  Many of the fittest Men from Esgaroth were eager to march with them, and they rallied around Bard.  Skilled builders and those who were little use as soldiers would remain behind with the Master to begin the construction of a stout winter camp.  The winds sweeping down from the north encouraged them to hurry. 


With the organization of the camp well in hand, and improvements underway, Thranduil was anxious to be gone.  It had already been ten days since Smaug had fallen, and the thought of the dragon’s hoard lying unguarded chafed him.  The whole state of affairs seemed very tenuously balanced, and the sooner he could steady it the better. 


He summoned both Bard and the Master to his pavilion in council that evening in order to finalize their plans.  It was a very rustic affair, everyone seated cross-legged on cushions on the ground, but there was still no proper furniture to be had in that desolate place.  Thranduil was not bothered, but he noticed that the Master was not adapting well to their deprivations.  He no doubt remembered spending the Fell Winter in a rude hut on the lakeshore thirty years ago, and was not sanguine about reliving the austerity as an old man.  Moreover, he was plainly displeased that the Elvenking conspicuously afforded Bard equal dignity in all their doings, a deliberate consideration for which Thranduil made no apology.  Not only had Bard shown greater courage and competence than the Master in their adversity, but Thranduil already considered him Lord of Dale both by right and by deed, and would include him in his counsel. 


Thranduil glanced narrowly at the Master before they began, imagining he could recognize the storm of discontent swirling in his mind as he was forced to endure the barbarities of the ‘fighting men.’  Thranduil could not be troubled to pity him any more.  They had considerations of greater consequence to occupy them. 


“It is my intention to march for Erebor as soon as possible,” he said.  “I can do no more here.  The remnant of Esgaroth and the building of the winter shelters will be entrusted to the Master.  Are there any concerns you would submit to me before we take our leave?”


“I worry that the provisions you have provided, my lord, while very generous, will not last the winter,” the Master complained.  “What are we to eat, and how are we to live?  The camp will shelter us, but as you can see we have no furnishings, little clothing, and scant means of warmth.”


Thranduil’s expression soured, threatening to crack his impassive facade.  “I pledged to spare your lives, not to spare you hardship,” he said, “or shall I snap my fingers and summon a hundred boats to bring you a crown, a palace, and a menagerie?  I suspect your people know their business better than you expect.”  He turned to Bard.  “Do the Lake-men require any further support?”


“No, my lord,” Bard readily assured him.  “We are fishermen, and we still have boats.  I expect we will have little trouble feeding ourselves as we have been wont to.  The fare may be rather monotonous until spring, but no one will starve.  While we still have firewood, we can begin harvesting peat from the bogs.  Our clothes will last a while yet, and furniture we can do without for now.  Perhaps there will be some timber left for beds when all the shelters are built.”


Thranduil turned back to the Master, hoping he had observed the correct way for a competent ruler to answer the question.  He received only a truculent glare in return. 


“I understand you wish to assist me in securing the Mountain,” Thranduil continued, returning his attention to Bard.  “How many Men do you anticipate will follow you?”


“Two hundred, more or less,” Bard answered.  “The others must stay and help the building.”


“Will they be ready to march at daybreak?”


“I will see to it,” Bard promised, “although I fear we must fall upon your benevolence again, my lord, as we have neither weapons nor supplies to contribute.”


Thranduil waved away his courteous apologies.  “Bring your strength and your courage; we will feed and arm you.”


“And what of the dragon’s treasure?” the Master demanded.  “If it lies forsaken, there are few who have a better claim than we.  Surely you do not mean to idly stand over it while we endure the winter in poverty.”


Both Thranduil and Bard turned on him with much the same expression, but Bard held his peace out of an abundance of deference.  “The treasure did not belong to the dragon,” Thranduil said, condescending to give the ponderous explanation despite his impatience.  “By right, it now falls to the heirs of Thrór, whoever they may be, and however his fathers may have acquired it.  I have not come to challenge that right, but only to maintain order in these lands.  If you wish to plead your case to the Dwarves, as I believe you should, you may do so when they come.  I have no power to compensate you, and I will not tolerate theft.”


“Surely the Elves of the Wood have earned some share of the spoils after all they have done,” Bard suggested kindly.


Thranduil acknowledged him with a tolerant smile.  “That may be a consideration for another day.  Until then,” he continued, turning severely on the Master, “as I am to bear the burden of rebuilding this city for a third time without compensation, I shall expect a greater degree of cooperation from that quarter in future.  The maintenance of Esgaroth is proving to be very expensive, and my forbearance grows thin.  I trust I make myself clear.”


“Perfectly, my lord,” the Master agreed, “whatever you require.”  He actually seemed somewhat humbled.  Thranduil was not certain whether his contrition was genuine or feigned, but either one served his purposes.  The Master may be uncomfortable, underfed, and dissatisfied, but he still had enough self-interest to understand that it would be very unprofitable to offend his wealthiest patron.  “Whatever you require.  As you may imagine, we are prepared to make any bargain in return for your magnanimity.”


“Yes,” Thranduil agreed with a dubious air.  “I trust you will remember that when next I have cause to remind you.”


There was very little sleep in the camp that night.  As planned, the Elvish soldiers were standing in ranks ready to be gone at the first blush of dawn.  Thranduil stood quietly while Gwaelas armed him by lamplight, his thoughts already wandering toward the Mountain.  His armor was brilliantly clean again, and he could hear Espalass stamping irritably outside.  There were just a few other arrangements to be made, and then they could be on their way.


Commander Dorthaer slipped inside.  “Bard and his Men have been armed out of the army’s stores as you requested, sire,” he said.


“Good.”  Thranduil had arranged that the Lake-men be equipped with bows and swords as he had promised.  It had left his own army rather short on spare arms, but that did not trouble him.  “Who are you leaving here with our builders?”


“Felanthir will stay to represent you, my lord.”


“Very well.  Tell him I require his horse, and summon Bard here.”


Dorthaer ducked out again to do as he was bidden.  Thranduil paused for a moment as Gwaelas lay the cold steel of his military crown on his brow, then he pulled on his armored gloves.  He closed his hand briefly around the hilt of Orcrist at his hip, the remarkable sword briefly quieting the nagging twinge of anxiety he could not yet justify to himself. 


They were not marching to war, yet he felt as though they were.  He wanted to dismiss the feeling, fragments of memory and emotion stirred up by familiarity of his army and the strangeness of their surroundings.  Unfortunately he knew his instincts too well to be satisfied with that excuse.  Away from Greenwood, the extraneous senses he had come to rely upon were more uncertain, darkened to the point that he almost felt blind.  Almost.  It was all the more reason to see their new allies adequately prepared.


Bard entered then.  “You asked for me, my lord?”


“Yes,” Thranduil said, returning to the present.  “I would have you better equipped.  It will not do to have the heir of Girion go forth looking like an impoverished castaway.”  He took up a tunic of armored scales and hung it over his arm.  “Gwaelas has kindly offered you the use of his armor, which should be a better fit than anything of mine.”


Bard seemed surprised, but then his grim features softened into a self-deprecating smile.  “I must admit, my own clothes have seen better days,” he said, shedding his new weapons and his moth-eaten coat.  “Thank you, my lords.”


As Gwaelas assisted Bard into the unfamiliar armor, Thranduil turned to retrieve another of his own cloaks, green and silver-gray, embellished with embroidery fit for royalty.  Gwaelas had spent much of the previous night taking up the bottom hem to better accommodate Bard’s stature.  He gave it to Gwaelas who swept it over Bard’s shoulders and secured it with a jeweled stay before the other could object.  “I am afraid we have nothing more Mannish to dress you in,” Thranduil apologized, “but it should distinguish you well enough until you acquire your own finery.” 


For a moment Bard was lost for words.  “You have shown us nothing but extraordinary kindness, my lord,” he said, “for which I am unable to adequately thank you.  If Dale is to rise again, I swear it will stand in eternal friendship and loyalty to the Elves of the Wood.”


Thranduil smiled.  “I am not trying to buy your friendship,” he assured him.  “At heart I am simply a romantic who finds great satisfaction in the return of dispossessed princes.  Your good fortune is an inspiration amidst all this upheaval, and it will give your people courage.  Now come,” he said, as Gwaelas quickly strapped Bard back into his quiver harness with practiced ease.  “Let us go see what remains of your patrimony.”


Lord Galadhmir was waiting beside his horse when they emerged into the twilight before dawn.  “Your army stands ready, sire,” he said. 


Thranduil nodded, taking Espalass’ reins from Guardsman Neldorín.  Guardsman Felanthir also stood by with his own horse, and he offered it to the King as requested.  Thranduil accepted it and handed the reins to Bard.  “Gather your men, Master Bowman.”


Bard looked at Thranduil with a twisted smile, as though he appreciated his continued generosity but knew any further effusions of gratitude would be superfluous.  Instead he drew himself up and offered the Elvenking a deep bow.  “As you wish, my lord,” he said.  “Lead us out.”


As the order to march was finally given, and the vanguard of the army passed through the camp, all the surviving citizens of Esgaroth stopped their work and stood outside their crude shelters in silent salute.  Thranduil accepted their stoic tribute, recognizing in them the seeds of a new realm of Men, diminished in number but strengthened by adversity.  After some time, he heard a cheer go up behind them, and he smiled to himself knowing Bard must be passing through.  The future surely held great things for him.


“How long before we arrive in Dale?” Lord Galadhmir asked casually as they rode.


“If we maintain this pace and if the weather holds in our favor, no more than three days,” Thranduil said.  “I expect we will camp there.  No doubt even a ruin like that will be more pleasant than a filthy dragon’s lair.”


 

 

The army arrived at the ruins of Dale on the evening of the third day.  Their camp was erected as soon as possible, glowing with torchlight.  As the soldiers took some rest and refreshment, Thranduil stood on what remained of an old stone wall and considered the vast shape of the Mountain in the waning moonlight.  The lingering suspicion of danger still haunted him, shadowed and indistinct but undeniable. 


The desolate landscape, blasted by the dragon’s fume, told him nothing.  There were birds settling themselves for the night, mainly ravens and thrushes, but Thranduil had the distinct impression that they still regarded the newcomers with mistrust rather than welcome.  They quieted around him, as though they suspected he understood their speech.  There was an air of intrigue about the whole place that was unsettling. 


Lord Galadhmir approached with Bard beside him.  “You seem very restless, my lord,” Galadhmir observed.  “Will you not come and eat?  What is needling you?”


“The air is too still,” Thranduil said.  “The birds are too quiet.  The mountain seems too . . . alive.  I feel our coming was anticipated, that we are walking into dangers we have not accounted for.”


“Why?” Bard asked warily.  “What do you know?”


“Nothing for certain,” Thranduil confessed.  “My powers of perception are limited in these lands, but I cannot shake the impression that every living thing in the valley is watching our approach and waiting for the ax to fall.”


Both Galadhmir and Bard shifted nervously where they stood.  “Shall I post extra sentries, then?” Galadhmir asked.


“Yes,” Thranduil agreed, descending from the wall to join them.  “I doubt I will sleep tonight, but do not dissuade the others from doing so.  I want our men to maintain their strength as much as possible.  In the morning we will send a party of scouts to have a closer look at the mountain.  We cannot decide anything in darkness.”


The soldiers were weary after the long march, especially the Lake-men, and they appreciated a long night’s sleep.  The Elves kept watch, and Thranduil stood among them, trying to clear his mind so that he may attune it to the country around him.  The feeling of unwelcome only intensified.  Some power was already set against them, but he could discover no more about it.  He began debating within himself whether he should summon reinforcements.  Perhaps he would know in the morning. 


When morning came, Thranduil had already chosen six of his Guardsmen to serve as advance scouts, and Bard had chosen six of the Lake-men.  They set out on foot toward the mountain at first light. 


While they were gone, Thranduil took counsel with Bard and Galadhmir.  “Provided all is well at the Mountain,” he said, “I anticipate sending companies of soldiers to guard the gate in rotations.  Official word should then be sent to the Dwarves of the Iron Hills, lest they assume we have come to hold Erebor against them.”


“I have not often dealt with Dwarves,” Bard admitted, “but I imagine it would be best to avoid any misunderstandings.”


“It has been my experience that Dwarves often resolve misunderstandings in blood,” Thranduil said dryly, “and I am not keen to waste any of mine.”


They were interrupted by the approach of one of the Lake-men who had been acting as sentry.  “Your pardon, my lords,” he said, “but your scouts return.”


“Already?” Thranduil asked, incredulous.  “It has only been a few hours.”


“They are coming in haste,” the sentry added.  “I fear they have encountered some difficulty.”


Thranduil sighed and stood up.  “They will tell their tale soon enough,” he said, “and speculation will profit us nothing.  Come, Master Bowman.”


The scouts came storming back into the camp, the winded Men trailing behind the agitated Elves.  “My lords!” Guardsman Neldorín said, approaching Thranduil immediately.  “Thorin Oakenshield and his company live!  They have built a wall over the gate and barricaded themselves inside.”


It was a surprise to everyone to hear the Dwarves had survived the dragon’s wrath, but soon the Lake-men remembered their grievances, and Thranduil reflected darkly that they all had just cause against them.  “It seems Smaug did not clean his house as thoroughly as we supposed,” he said.  “How many of the company still stand against us?”


“We were not able to make an accurate count,” Neldorín explained.  “Thorin hailed us with no welcome, and demanded to know our purpose.  We gave him no answer, and instead returned to you.”


“As I suspected,” Thranduil sneered, “they were unable to defeat the dragon themselves, and succeeded only in stirring him against us.  Now they sit upon the spoils as though they had earned them.”


“This injustice must not stand!” Bard insisted.  “The citizens of Lake-town, including many who live no longer, welcomed them when they had nothing.  Oakenshield has brought us only ruin and death, yet he would deny us recompense!”


“Perhaps, and perhaps not,” Thranduil said, finding his own equilibrium again before Bard did.  “Let us ask him, but not yet.  Not yet.  Let him sit among his riches for a time and consider his position.”


“What would you have us do in the meantime, my lord?” Bard asked, still keenly dissatisfied.


“I would move our camp much nearer Thorin’s gates,” Thranduil suggested.  “That alone should occupy us until nightfall.  I imagine they have little desire to be reminded of the debt they owe to Esgaroth, and my very presence will be offensive to them.  Still, we might lure them into a parley with merriment and comfort, two things I imagine they lack in their present circumstances.”


“They cannot be well-supplied in this barren waste,” Bard agreed, “even if they have not lost any of the provisions the Master provided.  They can be no more than fourteen, perhaps fewer, little defense against a force such as ours.”


“I would not instigate bloodshed unless at the last need,” Thranduil cautioned him.  “Dead men have no use for gold.  Let us show him our goodwill before we put any demands to him.”


Bard agreed, and Thranduil gave the order to disband the camp.  Pavilions were pulled down, supplies gathered and reloaded, the ranks reformed.  In a matter of hours they were all marching in a column into the foothills of Erebor.  The new camp was set as near the gate as it could be, well out of bowshot but near enough to tempt the defenders with the sounds and aromas of good food and fellowship.


The soldiers were more than happy to play their part that night, feasting, drinking, singing, and playing music.  The valley smelled of roast venison, courtesy of Thranduil’s huntsmen, and everyone was thoroughly enjoying himself in the dancing firelight.  No answer came from the mountain, though the watch there could hardly have failed to observe the spectacle. 


In the cold light of morning, Bard himself went to hail Thorin with a party of Men and Elves, this time armed with spears and declaring their loyalties with the green banner of the Wood and the blue of the Lake.  He went to broach the matter of recompense to the Master and the Lake-men for the damage done by the dragon, as well as the inconvenient fact that Bard himself may be entitled to some of the gathered riches as heir to Girion and the plundered realm of Dale.  Thranduil had small hope of success, but perhaps the new King under the Mountain might be disposed to wear his crown with grace and nobility.


He was not surprised, however, when Bard returned in a foul temper.  “The folly of pride is upon them!” he complained.  “They refuse all reason, and did not even trouble themselves to be courteous, insisting that we comply with their terms or risk receiving no repayment at all.”


A wry expression passed Thranduil’s face.  He had not expected much better, but it was a disappointment nonetheless.  “And what are Thorin’s terms?” he asked.


“He demands that our forces disperse, that you and your Elves return to the Wood, and that the Lake-men lay down their arms and crawl to the gate on bended knee before pleading our cause.”  Bard was pacing angrily back and forth, too indignant to be still.  “The audacity beggars belief, that they would presume to dictate to us when it is they who owe us redress!”


“And what would you ask of the Elves, Master Bowman?” Thranduil asked, grimly amused by the absurdity of it all.  “Would you have us retreat as Thorin demands?”


“By no means, my lord!”  Bard stopped in his tracks, offended by the suggestion.  “I told that pompous fool that the Elvenking has proven a better friend to the Men of Lake-town than any of the Longbeards, and that he should not speak ill of you.  In any case, I have not the strength in numbers to force them from their keep, or to hold them by siege without your help.  In this temper, I fear Thorin will find abundant reason to avoid his obligations if he is not faced with threat of force.”


“I suspect you are right,” Thranduil agreed.  “I am pleased to see we are of the same mind, because I am not inclined to quit the field, whatever Thorin may say.  If he is to reign in Erebor, he will have to deal with me sooner or later, and it would not behoove us to begin our association by capitulating to his unreasonable demands.  He is not the only king in Rhovanion, and he would do well to remember it.”


“Quite so, my lord,” Bard said.  “Lest he forget, I would urge that we give him answer before the day wanes.  I would not have him think us cowed by his terms.”


“Very well,” Thranduil said, stiffening.  “I, then, have terms of my own.  Guardsman Neldorín, by the Bowman’s leave, you will relay this to Thorin Thrain’s son Oakenshield, calling himself King under the Mountain.  We bid him consider well the claims that have been urged, or be declared our foe.  At the least he shall deliver one twelfth portion of the treasure unto Bard, as the dragon-slayer, and as the heir of Girion.  From that portion Bard will himself contribute to the aid of Esgaroth; but if Thorin would have the friendship and honor of the surrounding lands, as his sires had of old, then he will give also something of his own for the comfort of the Men of the Lake.”  He turned back to Bard.  “Is that satisfactory?”


“But what of you, my lord?” Bard protested. 


“I have no claim upon the treasure of Erebor,” Thranduil maintained, “excepting, perhaps, a few singular items I may seek to redeem at a later time.  Thorin owes me nothing, but if either you or the Master should wish to make some offer of recompense for my efforts on your behalf, that will be quite another matter.”  He turned back to Neldorín with a final instruction.  “If the Dwarves refuse our conditions, you will declare the Mountain besieged.  If they wish to parley, they must call for it.  We will bear no weapons against them, but simply leave them to their gold.  Perhaps they may eat that.”


Neldorín nodded, then turned to lead the company of heralds and spearmen back toward Erebor. 


“How do you expect they will receive your conditions?” Bard asked as they watched the company go.  “Do you think they will comply?”


“If they have any sense, they will,” Thranduil said, “though it will give them no pleasure.  Thorin will not be in any temper to tolerate demands from me, however just they may be.  It is a bitter lesson he must accept for his own good.  We must hope that his companions are more practical.”  He heaved a weary sigh.  Negotiations were very tedious things.  “Come, ride with me.  The horses need exercise.”


They rode together around the perimeter of the camp.  They did not speak, but Thranduil recognized the wistful look in Bard’s eyes as he considered the distant sight of Dale, the flinty determination to right the wrongs of the past.  He would make a fine lord, a king perhaps, even if at present he looked like a disgruntled fisherman clad in Elvish castoffs.  He would grow into his role in time, and Thranduil would be keen to hear of his progress.


They had only completed a few circuits around the camp when they spied the heralds returning.  Thranduil glanced at Bard, and then spurred Espalass on to meet them in the valley.  As they drew nearer, they could see that Neldorín had an arrow embedded in the face of his shield. 


“This is their answer, my lord,” Neldorín said angrily, indicating the offensive shaft.  “They returned no other.  I declared the terms of the siege as you ordered.  They are determined to rot in their riches.”


Many ominous thoughts crowded Thranduil’s mind as he considered the implications.  “Very well, then,” he said.  “As our communication seems to be at an end, you are dismissed.  Galennath, report to Commander Dorthaer for your new assignments.”


Bard instructed the Men to return to the camp and await further orders, but he remained with Thranduil.  The two of them were left alone astride their horses to consider the vast and implacable shape of the Mountain looming before them.


“I had not anticipated laying siege to the place,” Thranduil said darkly, “especially with winter coming on.  Still, you are right to say this injustice cannot stand.  If we leave Thorin to his spoils now, he will never honor his debt to you, not after the rash words he has spoken today.”


“Then let them starve,” Bard sneered.  “Let them taste the misery they have chosen.  They cannot last long before it begins to bite.”


“Perhaps not,” Thranduil agreed, though still uncertain.  “Yet I suspect even the proudest Dwarf would think twice before condemning himself and his companions to death by hunger amidst a sea of wealth unless they were emboldened by some other consideration.”


“What do you mean?”


“Perhaps other forces are already moving,” Thranduil explained.  “I have not sent word to the Iron Hills, but I would be surprised if they have not already heard of Smaug’s demise by other means.  I do not fancy wasting my time here in the cold only to be flanked by angry Dwarves, and if it is Thorin who has contrived to summon them, you can be sure they will arrive as proud and as ill-tempered as he.”


“Perhaps we assume too much,” Bard reasoned.  “Perhaps in a day or two the king and his companions may think better of their words, and seek to parley.”


“I would welcome it,” Thranduil said, “but I will not count on it.  I will send immediately for reinforcements from the Wood, and if a horde of Thorin’s kinsmen appears in the east, we will be here to counter them.  They will not escape their obligations so easily.”


Thranduil wheeled his horse around and returned to his pavilion at once.  He requested a piece of paper and a quill from Gwaelas, and wrote out a 
brief request that Legolas march to join them at once with whatever archers could be spared from their home defenses.  When the ink had dried, he folded the paper upon itself twice, rolled it into a tight bundle and tied the end of a piece of twine around it.  They had horsemen aplenty, but he had a swifter courier in mind.


He returned into the camp and acquired a few strips of raw rabbit from the hunters who were preparing the day’s game.  He remounted with two of his guardsmen and galloped away south to the edge of the grassland beyond the desolation of Smaug. 


Thranduil dismounted, left his horse with his guards, and walked quietly into the undisturbed landscape.  The sun was bright, but gave little warmth.  The dry stalks of grass bent and rustled in the wind.  There was no creature visible in all that wild country except for the one he had expected to find, a lone kestrel hovering over the grass in search of prey.


He whistled a sharp call, as Radagast had taught him.  Distracted, the bird nimbly changed direction and flew towards him, alighting on his wrist as invited.  Thranduil stroked the magnificent speckled plumage, appreciating the strength of its grip on his arm.  He fed the bird the strips of rabbit so that it might not tire too soon, tied the twine to its leg and put the roll of paper in its talons.  In a few moments he was able to communicate his need, and the bird gave its consent.  Then he loosed it back into the air, and it sped south toward the forest.


The bird would arrive at the caverns by nightfall.  If the soldiers were ready to march immediately, as they should be, they would join them in Dale in a few days.  Despite all his misgivings, Thranduil still harbored a slight hope that all his preparations would be wasted, that Thorin would see sense and the matter would be resolved without unnecessary violence as between civilized sovereigns; but if not, his army would stand ready to see all debts paid.  He heartily disliked the thought of placing himself between two factions of hostile Dwarves, but he could not leave Bard and his people at their mercy.  Their only hope to maintain the peace and secure a favorable outcome was to present as impressive a show of force as possible. 


Once again, there was nothing for them to do except exactly what the Galennath had excelled at during the long years in Mirkwood.  They would wait, and they would be ready.



Chapter 45 - The Affairs of Wizards VI



The Dwarves made no move to seek further communication with the besieging army the following day, nor the next, nor the next.  The soldiers ate very well in turns as they continued to weaponize the aroma of roasting venison, attempting to inspire some sedition inside the halls of Erebor.  Thranduil would not admit to being anxious, but he did resent the wasted time, and he did not want to spend the winter in the elements any more than did the Master of Lake-town.  He began to wonder if Thorin was capable of starving himself to death out of spite.   


A fourth day passed with no progress, but the fifth day brought at least one welcome change.  A column of formidable archers three hundred strong appeared in the valley as the sunrise cleared the morning mist.  Prince Legolas led them astride a proud gray horse, and with him rode his chosen lieutenants, his cousin Calenmir and Tauriel.  


There was one other riding with them whom Thranduil would have been surprised to see had he not already suspected his involvement.  “Mae govannen, Mithrandir,” he greeted him with a wry smile as the archers dispersed into the camp and the commanders dismounted.  “I believe we came by some parcels of yours which had gone astray.  They have been making quite a nuisance of themselves.”


“Yes, Thranduil,” Gandalf said wearily as he swung down from his horse.  “Legolas has told me of Thorin’s escapades in Mirkwood.  If they had followed my instructions, they would not have made such a hash of things.”


“I would have appreciated some warning of their coming,” Thranduil said pointedly, “even if you were not inclined to escort them.”


Gandalf scowled.  “You speak as though I sent them,” he said.  “This is very much their own quest, and they are driven by their own purposes, although I will admit that I encouraged them in the endeavor.  But I have no time to play nursemaid to a pack of Dwarves.  They must find their own way in the world.  If neighbors so near as the Ereborrim and the Galennath cannot converse peaceably, that is your own affair.”


Thranduil darkened as Gandalf pushed past him and ambled away with his pipe, but he could not be irritated for long in the welcome company of his family.


“We came with all haste, my lord,” Legolas said.  “I trust we have not kept you waiting.”


“You have not,” Thranduil assured him, indicating that Tauriel and Calenmir should join them.  “Thorin and his company somehow survived their confrontation with Smaug, and they have fortified the gates of Erebor against us.  The dragon-slayer is a Man called Bard, by right the heir of Girion of Dale.  We have presented his claim and that of the beggared Lake-men to the Dwarves, but they have rejected all terms.  Thorin insists that we first depart, but we insist that he first pay his debts, and that is why you find us standing in the cold, laying siege to the Mountain.”


“Fourteen defenders against an army of two thousand?” Tauriel asked, incredulous.  “Why did you call us, my lord?  Do you suspect some trickery?”


“I still hope for a peaceable resolution,” Thranduil said, “but while there is even the possibility of battle, I would not be wrongfooted from the start.  Go refresh yourselves and be ready.  There is little else to be done until Thorin comes to his senses.”


When they had gone, Thranduil went after Gandalf.  He had many questions he was determined to have answered.  He found him hunched against the cold, considering the silent face of the Mountain and drawing furiously on his pipe.  


“Tell me what I have landed in, Mithrandir,” Thranduil said, coming to stand beside him.  “I suspect there is a great deal moving just now which I cannot see.”


“There is no need to be so morose,” Gandalf chided him.  “Considering the circumstances, I would say it is all coming along remarkably well.  Not only has the dragon been dispatched and the Mountain reclaimed, but Sauron has fled from Dol Guldur.”


Thranduil turned sharply, broadsided by the comment, so momentous and yet so casually spoken.


Gandalf eyed him from beneath the brim of his great hat with sly satisfaction.  “You see, I have not been idle.  While you steadied affairs in the north, the White Council at last made their assault against our enemy in the south.  Neither of our foes could aid the other, and both have been routed.  You were right to suspect a larger scheme, and thus far you have played your part beautifully.”


“I would prefer to be treated as an ally rather than a pawn,” Thranduil complained, though greatly cheered by the news.


“Too much knowledge can be a burden, Oropherion,” Gandalf warned him.  “Do not seek more than you can bear.  Sauron’s flight from Mirkwood may be fortunate for you, but I fear it bodes ill for the rest of the world.  HIs power is increased, and I believe he fled with the intention of taking up his seat in Mordor once more.  It may be many years yet before we understand his purpose, but I fear war may be gathering again.”


It was a sobering possibility, but however they may dread it, that concern belonged to another day.  “War is always gathering somewhere,” Thranduil said, resigned to whatever would come.  “Sauron will keep.  Today we have only a surly Dwarf to contend with.”


Gandalf heaved a great smoky sigh.  “Yes.  I had expected better of Thorin, but a dragon’s influence can be heavy indeed.  I suspect he will not welcome my counsel any more than he did yours, but if he has not come to his senses by tomorrow I may yet intervene.”  He tapped out his spent pipe and prepared to refill it.  “Off with you now.  I have much to think about.”


Were it anyone else, Thranduil would not have tolerated such an abrupt dismissal.  Coming from Gandalf it was strangely reassuring, the brusque manner of an elder spirit come to keep a watchful eye on their troubles.  He obliged him by leaving him to his thoughts.


“Mithrandir commands the field, as always,” Lord Galadhmir commented under his breath, falling into step as Thranduil passed him.  


“He is a force to be reckoned with,” Thranduil agreed.  “I have stopped trying to resist him.  He always seems to be the most farsighted among us, anyway.”


The excitement of the morning soon faded into the familiar tedium which had characterized all the previous days of the siege.  No indication of any kind came from the Mountain, and in the deep silence Thranduil could not shake the impression that Thorin was mocking him.  It was true that he had been outspokenly content to play the long game before, but that had been easily said in the comfort of his own halls, when the obstinance of his prisoners had not occupied his every waking moment.  The Dwarves were again at his mercy, but Thranduil was forced to consider the fact that Thorin now held him prisoner too.  They were trapped in a tremendous duel of wills that would soon become very uncomfortable for all concerned.  Perhaps Gandalf could somehow bring about some resolution in the morning.


As evening fell, Thranduil found Tauriel standing like a sentinel on a large stone, facing the north wind and tasting the air.  He was once again confronted with the reality of his attachment to her.  His intention had been to see her established in life and then release her from his influence, but perhaps that had been a naive expectation.  She had become a very effective commander with a keen mind for strategy.  None of her rank was given unworthily, despite his inclination to favor her.  He did love her in his own way.


“There is some threat upon the air, my lord,” she said, leaning into the wind, “but I cannot understand it.”


“Your instincts serve you well,” Thranduil commended her.  “I also feel it.”


“This land is too unfamiliar to me,” Tauriel complained, “and yet it is the only land I have ever seen outside our Wood.  We live so long and yet so much of this world is still new to us.”


“Some enjoy the freedom to roam,” Thranduil said.  “Some are duty-bound to do so.  Mithrandir, I am sure, has seen more of this world than you or I ever will.  Perhaps when our own duties no longer bind us here, and the world is no longer so perilous, you will be able to indulge your wanderlust.”


Tauriel sighed.  “And when will that be, my lord?” she asked with obvious pessimism.  “I have never known peaceful times, and you were fighting our war for more than a thousand years before my birth.  Do you think Greenwood will ever be restored?”


Thranduil did pity her, child of war that she was.  “None can say,” he admitted, “but we have not lost all cause for hope.  Mithrandir tells me the Wise have finally seen fit to rout Gorthaur from Dol Guldur.  Surely we must find some courage in that.”


That news did seem to lighten her mood.  “Will we have peace in Mirkwood, then?”


“That remains to be seen.  I will have to ascertain how much of his shadow our enemy took with him.  I suppose that is something we may look forward to when we have finished our business here.”


Tauriel darkened again, reminded of their other frustrations.  “Prince Legolas was right to say patience was not chief among my virtues.  I wish there was something that could be done to bring these Dwarves to heel.  Are we to let them hold us here all winter?”


“All that can be done is being done,” Thranduil assured her, “and patience comes with experience.  If things go ill, you may soon find there is entirely too much to be done and then you may regret that we did not resolve our affairs quietly when we had the chance.”


She frowned.  “I still think our army could make short work of them,” she said.  “They would crumble beneath the first assault.”


“Perhaps,” Thranduil allowed, becoming grim.  “Which of your comrades would you sacrifice in the endeavor?”


Tauriel had no ready answer, and seemed to take his point.


“Gold and jewels can be very good things,” Thranduil said, “often worth fighting for, but bitter experience has taught me they are never worth dying for.  So here we will wait until the claims of the Lake-men are honored.  We will answer violence if we must, but we will not throw ourselves onto their pikes.”


She nodded, silhouetted against the stars.  “Yes, my lord.”


“Now,” Thranduil said, changing the subject, “are you standing watch, or merely satisfying your own curiosity?”  


“I am not on duty, my lord,” Tauriel answered.


“Then come down and get yourself something to eat.  You will drive yourself mad trying to pry answers out of a hostile landscape.”


Tauriel obeyed without question, though Thranduil had the distinct impression that she would have preferred to stay and pass the time with him.  He also felt a tug at his spirit as she left, an impulse to embrace her, caress her, or offer some other kindred endearment that would have been monstrously improper under the circumstances.  He was the King, and she was just another of the soldiers beneath his banner, though perhaps a singular representative of the woodland people he loved so much.  Still, he could not forget those days when she had been no more than a helpless infant lulled to sleep by the sound of his heartbeat.  A connection had been forged then which he had not intended, and which he was still unsure how to acknowledge.  That, like many other things, was a problem for another day.


Thranduil wandered aimlessly through the firelit camp for the next few hours, deep in his own thoughts, making himself visible for the benefit of his army, and available to hear and address their concerns.  The cold was deepening, and no one was pleased by the thought of a long siege, especially as the profligate treatment of their provisions was tightened.  Rations were shorter, and so were tempers everywhere, all universally directed against Thorin and his mulish pride.  


At last Thranduil turned his steps back toward his own pavilion, craving the warmth afforded by a large fire and a deep cup of wine.  Patience did come with experience, as he had said, but that did not mean it came any more naturally to him than it did to Tauriel.  The waste of his time, the unnecessary fuss and bother and expense of it all deeply rankled him when he dwelt upon it.  If Mithrandir vacillated in the morning, Thranduil would have to insist that he make some effort to bring Thorin around.   


It should not have surprised him to find Gwaelas waiting beside the fire, cup in hand.  Thranduil accepted it gratefully.  “The days only seem to grow longer,” he said, “despite the shortening daylight.”


Gwaelas nodded in weary agreement.  “We may only hope Erebor’s defenders are of the same mind,” he said.


Thranduil sighed.  “I doubt there is any inconvenience which would sway Thorin now, but perhaps his companions have clearer heads.”


A commotion at the north side of the camp drew their attention.  A party of advance scouts was returning from the wilds with a strange urgency, a sharp and uneasy contrast to the dreary monotony of the past days.  “Master Gwaelas!” they were calling.  “Where is the King?”


“He is here,” Thranduil said, raising his voice above the confusion.  “What has happened?”


“My lord!”  The scouts approached and bowed before him, parting ranks to reveal a remarkable individual among their company, dripping wet and wrapped in a blanket.  “The halfling has come from Erebor and seeks to parley.”  







Bard was immediately summoned.  The halfling, who very properly introduced himself as Mr. Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, had happily accepted a seat beside the fire and some refreshment while they waited.  He was extremely talkative, and had a great deal to say even between mouthfuls.  


Intrigued, Thranduil likewise seated himself on one of the sawn rings of firewood that served as chairs in that place.  Mr. Baggins was unlike anything he had ever seen before.  No bigger than a child, he nonetheless exhibited exemplary manners and was plainly accustomed to the finer things in life.  How he had managed to land himself in his present difficulties was more a mystery than ever.  The brilliant shirt of mithril mail shining beneath his travel-worn coat only added to his curious appearance.  A priceless relic like that must have been forged for the Noldorin princes of the Elder Days, and no doubt came out of Smaug’s hoard.  Thranduil could not help but briefly wonder what other fabulous fragments of legend were hidden in the Mountain.


“I must thank you again, my lords, for supper,” Bilbo was saying, mopping up what remained of his food with a crust of bread.  “We have not enjoyed a proper meal for days, and a life lived on cram is no life at all, I say.  Thorin imagines we could hold out for weeks yet, but provender like that shrinks one’s courage.”


Bard appeared in the firelight, and Thranduil directed him toward the sawn ring beside him.  “Master Baggins, this is Bard the dragon-slayer,” he said, “although I assume he is already known to you.”


Bilbo jumped to his feet and offered another bow in his exaggerated courtly manner.  “You are both known to me, my lords,” he said, “although the Elvenking may be forgiven for not realizing it.”


Thranduil narrowed his eyes.  There was indeed a familiar air about him that was eerily undeniable, plucking at Thranduil’s memory even as he observed the hobbit for the first time.  He felt he had sat with him before, or rather had unwittingly sat near him for an extended period of time.  Many inconsequential mysteries which had presented themselves in his halls during the Dwarves’ captivity seemed to have found a source, if not an explanation.  Still, the last time he had heard of the halflings of Eriador they had helped Glorfindel defeat the Witchking of Angmar, so perhaps the residents of the Shire were capable of greater enchantments than he suspected.


“All pleasantries aside,” Bilbo continued, resuming his seat and wrapping the blanket closer around him, “I have come to discuss the possibility of lifting the siege, which I am sure would be a welcome prospect to all concerned.”


“Not without satisfaction,” Bard insisted.  “There are debts to be paid, Master Baggins.”


“And I have not forgotten it, I assure you,” Bilbo said.  He shrugged and shook his head.  “The situation is really quite impossible at the moment.  Personally I am tired of the whole affair.  I wish I was back in the West in my own home, where folk are more reasonable.  But I do have an interest in this matter, one fourteenth share, to be precise, according to a letter, which fortunately I have kept.”  He produced a much abused paper from his coat pocket and opened it to reveal what appeared to be a letter signed by Thorin himself.  


“I understand that to be a share of the profits, of course,” the hobbit continued.  “I am only too ready to consider all your claims carefully, and deduct what is right from the total before taking my own.  However you don’t know Thorin Oakenshield as well as I do now.  I promise you, he is quite ready to sit on a heap of gold and starve as long as you stay here.”


“Let him, then!” Bard spat.  “Such a fool deserves to starve.”


“Quite so,” Bilbo allowed.  “I see your point of view.  Still, winter is coming on quickly.  Before long you will be having snow and what not, and supplies will be difficult, perhaps even for Elves.  Also there will be other complications.  Have you not heard of Dain and the Dwarves of the Iron Hills?”


“Not for many years,” Thranduil answered cautiously.  “What of him?”


Bilbo frowned.  “I thought as much.  Dain, I may tell you, is now less than two days’ march off, and at least five hundred Dwarves march with him, many of them veterans of the dreadful Dwarf and Goblin wars, of which you have no doubt heard.  When they arrive there may be serious trouble.”


Thranduil and Bard shared a significant glance.  It was as Thranduil had suspected, and there would be trouble indeed.  The confirmation did much to explain Thorin’s stubborn resistance, his hope to hold by battle what he could not claim by right.  It confirmed all Thranduil’s worst opinions of Dwarves.


Bard turned a narrow glance on the hobbit.  “Why are you telling us this?” he demanded.  “Are you betraying your friends, or do you presume to threaten us?”


“My dear Bard!” Bilbo squeaked, choking on a sneeze as he hastened to explain himself.  “Don’t be so hasty!  I have never met such suspicious folk!  I am simply trying to avoid trouble for everyone.  I would make you an offer!”


“Let us hear it!” Thranduil bid him, and Bard heartily concurred.  Anything to break the odious stalemate.  


“You may see it!” Bilbo declared, producing an object from his pocket with a flourish and throwing off the wrapping.  “It is this!”


Thranduil was on his feet before he knew what had happened.  It was the fabled Arkenstone, Thrór’s most prized possession, gleaming from a thousand shimmering facets like frozen moonlight.  Bard was stricken silent as well, though he perhaps did not yet understand its significance.  


“This is the Arkenstone of Thrain,” Bilbo explained, “the Heart of the Mountain.  It is also the heart of Thorin, and he values it above a river of gold.  I give it to you.  It will aid you in your bargaining.”  He handed the extraordinary stone to Bard, though obviously and understandably reluctant to part with it.  


“But how is it yours to give?” Bard asked when at last he found his voice.  


“Oh!  Well,” Bilbo began, seeming a bit awkward, “it isn’t exactly.  But, well, I am willing to let it stand against all my claim, don’t you know.  I may be a burglar, but I hope I am an honest one, more or less.”  He shrugged again with a sigh, the endearingly innocent expression of one who knows his task is done.  “Anyway, I am going back now, and the Dwarves can do what they like to me.  I hope you will find it useful.”


There were very few people who had so completely earned Thranduil’s trust and regard at their first meeting.  “Bilbo Baggins!” he said.  “You are more worthy to wear the armor of Elven-princes than many who have looked more comely in it.  But I doubt Thorin Oakenshield will see it so.  I have more knowledge of Dwarves in general than you have perhaps, and I fear what may befall you when your companions discover what you have done.  I would advise you to remain with us, and here you will be honored and thrice welcome.”


“Thank you very much, I am sure,” Bilbo said with a gracious bow, “but I don’t think I ought to leave my friends like this, after all we have gone through together.  And I promised to wake old Bombur at midnight, too!  Really I must be going, and quickly.”


“We will not hold you against your will,” Thranduil assured him, “even if we think it for the best.  Keep your wits about you and do not trust too much to Thorin’s mercy.  We will approach the gates again tomorrow.  If your friends turn against you, know that you may expect safe haven with us.”


“I expect they will be quite cross with me,” Bilbo allowed, “but I don’t expect they will hurt me.  They are good people at heart, beneath all their bluff and bluster, though it may be difficult for others to see it.”


“I regret the Dwarves have never shown me that side of their nature,” Thranduil said.  “More often they have shown me the blades of their axes, politer in word than in deed.  Keep yourself well, Master Baggins, until we meet again.  I shall be most displeased if you come to harm.”


“Good of you to say so, my lord,” Bilbo said with a melancholy smile.  “I would have preferred that we had met under more amiable circumstances.  Perhaps we may hope for a resolution soon.”


“I hope we may,” Thranduil agreed.  “My soldiers will escort you as far as the river.”


“Expect us by midday, Master Baggins,” Bard promised, wrapping the stone again, veiling its beguiling light.  “Whatever tomorrow brings, you have done a great service both for us and for your friends.  Farewell!”


Bilbo bowed once more.  Thranduil and Bard stood together to salute him as his escort led him away into the darkness.  


“I dared not expect such a boon as this!” Bard said when the hobbit had gone, cradling the stone in his hands.  


“He has as true a heart as I have ever seen,” Thranduil marveled, “to have come so far and endured so much only to forfeit all his reward to secure peace for three races of people so wholly unconcerned with him.  And to then return to put himself at Thorin’s mercy . . .”  He frowned.  “I pray his loyalty is not misplaced.  Bilbo Baggins’ safety is suddenly quite dear to me.”


The whole camp was unsettled that night as word of the change in circumstances spread.  Despite their hope of an auspicious parley the next day, Thranduil was ever mindful of Dain’s imminent arrival, and prepared his army for battle regardless.  He knew Thorin would be mindful of it, and may yet try to frustrate their attempts to reconcile in the hope of prevailing by slaughter.  It was behavior more befitting a brigand than a king.  There was some small hope that Dain might be prevailed upon to see reason, but blood bonds and kindred pride were formidable forces to contend with.  


In the early morning, Thranduil confirmed that the ranks were gathered in loose order, ready to stand at a moment’s notice.  Lord Galadhmir commanded the spearmen, while Legolas, Tauriel, and Calenmir commanded the three companies of archers.  Bard selected a commander from among his Lake-men.  Thranduil sent Neldorín back to Erebor alone to herald their coming and ask if Thorin would receive them to discuss a change in circumstances.


He returned before long, and made his report to Thranduil, Bard, and Gandalf.  “Thorin will listen,” he said, “but he bids the delegation be few in number and weaponless.”


Bard made a sour face.  “He continues to call the tune, does he?”


“Let him have his small victory,” Thranduil said in a deceptively even tone.  “The surprise we have in store will provoke him quite enough.  To that end, Bard, I believe you should lead the parley.  I will stand with you, as will my soldiers, but it will only spark a needless quarrel if I should presume to speak.”


“As you say,” Bard agreed.  


“Mithrandir should certainly come as well,” Thranduil insisted, though Gandalf had not intimated otherwise.  “Whatever he may say to the contrary, I still believe he had some hand in instigating this absurd adventure, and now he must help us to finish it.”


Gandalf looked indignant.  “Steady now, Oropherion,” he grumbled.  “Of course I will come.  I have a few things to say to Thorin about how he has been conducting himself.” 


An especially good breakfast was provided for the army, exhausting the finer and more perishable provisions in anticipation of resolution or battle.  When all other preparations had been made, Bard, Thranduil, Gandalf, and Thranduil’s Guardsmen gathered on horseback in full regalia to deliver their final terms to the King under the Mountain.  


As the banner-bearers joined them, Gandalf nudged his mount toward Thranduil.  “How did you find Mr. Baggins, my lord?” he asked.


Thranduil could not help but smile, though the expression had a sly edge.  “He was unlike anything I expected,” he said, quite truthfully.  “Am I correct to suppose his inclusion in the company was your doing?”


Gandalf shrugged and muttered equivocally.  “He came of his own will,” he said at last.  “That is the important thing.”


“Perhaps it was,” Thranduil allowed, “but now I believe the important thing is that you see him home again in one piece.  It was quite a risk, sending a gentle soul like that into the wilds.”


“Oh, nonsense,” Gandalf insisted, bristling and drawing himself up like an affronted owl.  “Mr. Baggins has a great deal more pluck and sense than many suppose.  I gather he circumvented your defenses as though they were made of cheesecloth, and he had wit enough to bring us this.”  He indicated the wooden coffer which concealed the Arkenstone.  “He may pine for hearth and home, but he has proven himself an artful adventurer.”


“Whatever he is,” Thranduil persisted, “do not allow Thorin to injure him.  If you threw him into that company, you owe him that much.  I fear his good sense and loyalty are at cross-purposes in this case, and have landed him in a vulnerable position.”


“Peace, Thranduil,” Gandalf admonished him.  “I will look after Bilbo as well as I might.”


“Are we ready, my lords?” Bard asked, seeing that properly assembled.


“Indeed we are,” Gandalf assured him impatiently, taking the words from Thranduil’s mouth, turning up the hood of his cloak against the cold.  “Lead on.”


They rode as far as the edge of the valley.  There they left the horses under guard and continued on foot, climbing the tumbled stones beside the waterfall until they reached the shores of the pool on the plateau above.  As they approached the narrow way toward the barricaded gate, they stopped to leave aside their weapons in full view of the defenders.  


“Hail, Thorin!” Bard called up to them as they stood beneath the wall.  “Are you still of the same mind?”


“My mind does not change with the rising and setting of a few suns,” came the gruff answer from the battlements above.  “Have you come only to ask foolish questions?  The Elvish host has not yet departed as I bade!  Until then you come in vain to bargain with me.”


“As we see the demands of honor cannot sway you,” Bard continued, “is there nothing else for which you would yield any of your gold?”


“Nothing you or your friends have to offer.”


“Not even the Arkenstone of Thrain?”


Gandalf, still hooded and cloaked, produced the Arkenstone from its box and held it high.  Its wondrous light was unmistakable, even at midday.


A heavy silence fell on the whole assembly while they awaited a response.  It was a dangerous silence, Thranduil felt, even as he recognized their triumph. 


“That stone was my father’s, and is mine,” Thorin protested at last, brimming with wrath.  “Why should I purchase my own?  How came you by the heirloom of my house, if there is need to ask such a question of thieves?”


“We are not thieves,” Bard insisted grimly.  “Your own we will restore in return for our own.”


“How came you by it?” Thorin roared, deaf to all else.


“I gave it to them!


Bilbo’s voice came faintly to them at that distance, and both Thranduil and Bard were immediately concerned for his safety.  They had not been certain of his presence behind the wall, but Thranduil glimpsed his face above the stones.


“You!  You!”  Thorin was in a rage, forgetting the delegation at his gates as he turned on his companion.  Bilbo disappeared as he was torn from his perch.  “You miserable hobbit!  You undersized—burglar!”


Thranduil started forward, but Gandalf restrained him.  “He will kill him,” Thranduil insisted, cuffing away the wizard’s hand, plagued by all his blackest memories of Dwarvish brutality.  “Do something, or I will!” 


“By the beard of Durin!” Thorin was bellowing.  “I wish I had Gandalf here!  Curse him for his choice of you!  May his beard wither!  As for you, I will throw you to the rocks!”  He actually lifted the hobbit bodily and moved to throw him from the wall.


“Stay!  Your wish is granted!”  Gandalf’s voice boomed among the stones, and he threw off his cloak.  “Here is Gandalf, and none too soon it seems!  If you don’t like my Burglar, please don’t damage him.  Put him down, and listen to what he has to say!”


“You all seem to be in league!” Thorin snarled, though he did release Bilbo atop the wall for the moment.  “Never again will I have dealings with any wizard or his friends.  What have you to say, you descendant of rats?”


“Dear me!  Dear me!” Bilbo said, obviously quite shaken, straightening his rumpled clothes and eyeing Thorin with new trepidation.  “I am sure this is all very uncomfortable.  You may remember saying that I might choose my own fourteenth share?  Perhaps I took your words too literally.  I have been told that Dwarves are sometimes politer in word than in deed.  Still, there was a time when you seemed to think my service worthwhile.  Descendant of rats, indeed!  Is this all the service of you and your family that I was promised, Thorin?  Let us say that I have disposed of my share as I wished, and let it go at that!”


“I will,” Thorin assured him in a dreadful voice, “and I will let you go at that, and may we never meet again!”  Then he turned his ire back to the waiting delegation.  “I am betrayed,” he declared.  “It was rightly guessed that I could not forbear to redeem the Arkenstone, the treasure of my house.  For it I will give one fourteenth share of the hoard in silver and gold, setting aside the gems.  That will be accounted the promised share of this traitor, and with that reward he shall depart, and you can divide it as you will.  He will get little enough.  Take him, if you wish him to live, and no friendship of mine goes with him.”


Thranduil scoffed angrily.  “He would still deny the claims of Dale and the Lake, and allow his only decent companion to bear the entirety of the expense,” he complained.


“What of the gold and silver?” Bilbo was asking Thorin before he made good his escape, showing remarkable courage even then.


“That shall follow after, as can be arranged,” Thorin replied evasively.  “Get down!”


“Until then we keep the stone,” Bard called to him, not entirely convinced of Thorin’s sincerity.


“You are not making a very splendid figure as King under the Mountain,” Gandalf said at last with harsh honesty.  “But things may change yet.”


“They may indeed,” Thorin agreed.


Thranduil did not like his tone, both angry and devious, and he knew he must be thinking of Dain’s approach.  With such rancor, their chances of avoiding unnecessary bloodshed were growing thin.


Bilbo was swung down from the wall on a rope, a forlorn outcast with little to show for all his exploits.  “Farewell!” he cried up to the rest of them.  “We may meet again as friends.”


“Be off!” Thorin shouted at him.  “You have mail upon you, which was made by my people, and is too good for you!  It cannot be pierced by arrows, but if you do not hasten I will sting your miserable feet.  So be swift!”


Thranduil advanced a step, and Bilbo scurried behind him.


“Not so hasty!” Bard admonished Thorin.  “We will give you until tomorrow.  At noon we will return to see if you have brought from the hoard the portion that is to be set against the stone.  If that is done without deceit, we will depart, and the Elves will return to the Forest.  Until then, farewell!”


They turned and left at once.  Thranduil maneuvered Bilbo in front of him to shield the hobbit from any parting shots Thorin might care to loose in his madness.  He was quite happy to take up Orcrist again after the indignity of leaving it behind.  The others were also glad to arm themselves once more, and one by one they picked their way back down the precipice to the horses.


“Tell me, Master Baggins,” Thranduil said as he set Bilbo astride Espalass and mounted behind him, “now that Thorin has cast you out to his own detriment, how is he communicating with Dain?”


“The ravens,” Bilbo answered, still rather flustered by the whole affair.  “There are still a few of the old ravens of Thrór’s day who are able to speak the tongues of Men.  They have been bearing messages between them.”


No sooner had he said it than a pair of ravens flew above them in haste toward the east.  Thranduil frowned, imagining the bitter messages Thorin might be sending to his cousin now.  


“Dain must not reach the Mountain before Thorin redeems the stone,” Bard said, clearly suspecting the same.  “If the defenders gain reinforcements and supplies, we may quickly lose our advantage.”


“Agreed,” Thranduil said.  “In this temper they will avoid all payment if they can, and I have no wish to empty my own realm to besiege every gate in this cursed mountain.”  He put an arm around Bilbo and set his heels to his horse, and Espalass surged ahead toward the camp.  


He would avoid it as long as he could, but Thranduil could smell war brewing.  Unfortunately, the point of a sword was frequently the only argument a pugnacious Dwarf could understand.




 

Chapter 46 - The Affairs of Wizards VII




The rest of that day passed and the following night.  Thranduil was up to meet the morning, armored and ready for whatever the day may bring.  With the appointed time for Thorin’s payment fast approaching, and with Dain so near, he knew the whole affair must necessarily be coming to some resolution.  

Legolas and Tauriel had found him in the dim light of dawn, and they stood with him as he judged the weather.

“The wind has changed,” Legolas observed.  

“Yes,” Thranduil agreed.  The wind had shifted west, and the sky was gloomy and overcast.  It did not bring the scent of rain, but rather the smell of oiled metal and disturbed earth.  The crows had taken to the air again, anticipating a battle.  It was an ominous way to begin the day.  “You wanted to fight, Tauriel,” he said.  “We may soon have no choice.”

“Now that it comes to it,” Tauriel admitted, “I would rather not, my lord.  I would readily give my life to defend my home, my people, or my king, but gold does seem cold comfort in the face of death.”

“We can only hope Dain is of the same mind,” Thranduil began, but even as he said it the horns sounded in the east.

The scouts took up the call, crying to the camp that Dain had come.  They could just be seen, still far off, rounding the eastern spur of the Mountain.  Thranduil cursed under his breath and turned to find his horse.  “Back to your commands, both of you!” he barked at Legolas and Tauriel.  “They must have marched through the night.  Stand your men and be ready!”

The entire army heaved itself to life as the horns called the soldiers to their ranks.  Gwaelas was standing ready with Espalass, and Thranduil swung astride.  Bard came riding through the confusion to meet him.  “Master Bowman,” Thranduil greeted him in a grim voice, “are your men concealed on the eastern spur as we planned?”

“They are, my lord,” Bard confirmed.

“Under no circumstances must Dain gain entry to the Mountain, or our cause is lost.  I will set my army west of the river to bar the way.  You go to meet Dain’s heralds and try to forestall any hostilities.  Master Baggins!”  Thranduil called the hobbit as he saw him trying not to be trampled in the tumult.  “Go with Bard to meet Dain.  Perhaps they will more readily hear one of Thorin’s companions.”

Bard swept Bilbo onto his saddle and rode ahead of the marching Elves to the banks of the river.  Dain’s company could be seen hurrying up through the valley, but they were unable to close the distance before a thousand Elvish spearmen had planted themselves on the far side of the river with five hundred archers to support them.  Bard’s Lake-men guarded the southern flank and also lay hidden in the high places behind Dain’s company, ready for an ambush.

Thranduil rode out with his Guardsmen, following his army and observing their progress.  He sent three of his companions to Erebor’s gate in the forlorn hope that Thorin had already set out the required payment to redeem the Arkenstone.  He halted beside his southern flank, anxiously observing Bard’s encounter with Dain’s heralds.  They had crossed the river to meet him while the greater part of the Dwarves waited on the eastern side.  They were a daunting sight, all of them well muscled, well armed, and very well supplied, spoiling for a fight.  They could no doubt do a great deal of damage in battle despite their numerical disadvantage.  

Thranduil shared a grave look with Lord Galadhmir across the distance.  They alone of everyone on the field had done battle with Dwarves in the past, and they knew their peril.  Thranduil would still avoid it if he could.  

Bard turned his horse and rode back as the Dwarvish heralds returned to Dain.  “They will not see reason,” Bard lamented, sliding Bilbo to the ground.  “I believe they mean to force their way through if they can.”

Thranduil cursed again, feeling his hand would be forced despite all his efforts to preserve the peace.  

Just then his Guardsmen returned in haste from the gate.  “None of the treasure has been relinquished, my lord,” Neldorín confirmed.  “They only shot at us from the wall.”

Bard looked disgusted.  “Does their word mean nothing?  They would risk their very lives to spite us!”

“Such is the nature of Dwarves,” Thranduil sneered.  The thought of the imminent slaughter turned his stomach.  Dain’s people had begun their advance again, marching inexorably nearer the river.

“They are fools to linger so near the Mountain’s arm!” Bard observed.  “They do not understand war above ground, whatever they may know of battle in the mines.  Our ambush could not be more advantageously placed.  Dwarf mail may be good, but they will soon be hard put to it.  Let us spring the trap before they are rested!”

“Not yet,” Thranduil insisted.  “The first blood on my sword was that of Dwarves in a larger dispute over jewels, and I am not keen to repeat the experience.  Dain cannot pass us, or do anything we cannot mark.  We have numbers enough to stop them if they try to force their way, but I will have words of my own with them before we come to such a pass.”

“Do not waste your breath, my lord!” Gandalf said, appearing behind them.  “Dain will not hear you, and you will only endanger yourself.”

“I am prepared to waste a great deal of breath before I despair of preventing this travesty!” Thranduil snapped, rounding on him.  “You started this, Mithrandir.  Now I intend to finish it.”

He spurred his horse forward, followed by his guard, and galloped along the front of his army to intercept the advancing Dwarves before it was too late.  “Dain!” he roared, letting his voice carry throughout the valley as he reined to a sudden halt at the fords.  “Dain!  How much blood will you waste in this pointless quarrel?  We are not thieves, and have made no demand to which Thorin was not already honor-bound.  Can we not resolve this conflict peaceably?”

The Dwarves halted, and Dain pushed his way to the front.  “You have reckoned without us!” he complained gruffly.  “We have heard that you presume to hold the Arkenstone against Thrór’s right heirs.  What of Erebor’s pride?  We will hear no demands made by force!”

“It is Erebor’s pride to be honored and respected,” Thranduil said, “to be right and just in their treatment of their neighbors and of those who would be their friends!”

“Do friends hold friends by siege?” Dain scoffed.  “What righteous claim would you make upon the wealth of our fathers, Elvenking?  You have no business here!”

“I make no claim for myself,” Thranduil insisted, “but I have shouldered the cause of the Lake-men who have no other recourse.  Would you join Thorin in denying them redress?  Or may we not instead come to terms and avoid the evil of bloodshed?”

“We do not discuss terms with hostile armies at our gates, not while our kinsmen starve at swordpoint!” Dain thundered.  “If bloodshed is so odious to you, then begone!  We will advance, and we will cut our way through if we must.”

“You shall not pass before the debt is honored,” Thranduil promised darkly.  “If you attempt it, we will defy you.”

The Dwarves were undeterred, and they began stomping and shouting where they stood, determined to have battle.  An ugly darkness was growing over the valley.  The Elves readied their spears, and the archers fitted their arrows.  Without a signal, the Dwarves sprang forward to charge the ford, and the first rank of spearmen braced themselves to hold the line.  

Resigned to meet their folly, Thranduil drew Orcrist against them, but its brilliant blue gleam caused him and everyone else on the field to falter. 

“Halt!” Gandalf cried, riding into the midst of the combatants as lightning played over the peak of the Mountain and thunder shook the rocks.  His voice echoed mightily in the valley, and his staff blazed with light.  “Halt!  Dread has come upon you all!  Alas, it has come more swiftly than I guessed!  The Goblins are upon you!  Bolg of the North is coming, O Dain, whose father you slew in Moria!  Behold!  The bats are above his army like a sea of locusts.  They ride upon wolves and Wargs are in their train!”

Confusion immediately threatened to compromise the ranks as the darkness deepened and the great cloud of bats could be seen cresting the Mountain.  A thousand thoughts clamored in Thranduil’s mind as the situation was utterly changed.  One rose above all the rest, and he scowled at the wizard.

“Come!” Gandalf called.  “There is yet time for council.  Let Dain son of Nain come swiftly to us!”

Lord Galadhmir steadied the ranks as Thranduil joined Gandalf beside the river.  Dain came with a few close companions, and Bard came riding in from his position.  

“I trust I can rely upon all of you to put your quarrels aside for the day,” Gandalf began, looking severely at all of them in turn.  He seemed more ill at ease than Thranduil had ever seen before, and that did not inspire him with an abundance of confidence.  “Our only hope at present is to lure Bolg and his army into this valley and assail them from both sides once they are trapped between the Mountain’s arms.  It may be a perilous strategy if their numbers are sufficient to overrun the Mountain itself, but we must make do with what we have.  Agreed?”

There were no objections.  There was no time for argument.

“Thranduil,” Gandalf continued, “you and your army will man the southern spur beside Ravenhill.  Bard and Dain will take the eastern one, while a swift company of soldiers should make a show of holding Dale.  The promise of easy prey will lure them in.”

“I would also lead a party of scouts over the eastern shoulder to see what is marching against us,” Bard said.  

“Good,” Gandalf decided.  “Take some Elves with you.  Their sight is second to none.”

Thranduil immediately chose three of his Guardsmen and directed them to Bard.

“Go now,” Gandalf bade them.  “Acquit yourselves well and we may yet see another dawn!”

“To the Mountain!” Bard called.  “To the Mountain!  Let us take our places while there is still time!”

The council dispersed, each to his own task.  The enormous flight of bats was spilling over the Mountain’s shoulder now, their multitude blocking the sun.  Horns blew and great masses of soldiers began to shift into their new positions.  Thranduil and his guard were riding to join Galadhmir when he heard Gandalf shouting behind them.

“Confound it all, Bilbo Baggins!  Where have you been lurking?  Where am I to put you where you will not be always underfoot?”

Thranduil drew up sharply, so that Espalass’ hooves carved great furrows in the soft earth.  He wheeled about and returned at a gallop, slowing just enough to snatch Bilbo by the coat and lift him into the saddle with a cross look at Gandalf.  That wizard and his reckless schemes would be the death of the hobbit yet.  There was much he wished to say if they survived to speak again.  He turned his horse again and raced back to rejoin his army.

The Elves set themselves in the rocky foothills and lower slopes of the southern spur.  Thranduil took his place behind the last rank, a vantage point which afforded a comprehensive view of the battlefield.  Lord Galadhmir was already there, surveying their soldiers and keeping them in good order.  “Keep to the rear of us, Master Baggins,” Thranduil said, allowing the hobbit to grasp his hand as he slid to the ground.  “If danger finds you there, the battle has gone very ill indeed.”  

Bilbo was obviously glad to have solid ground beneath his feet again.  “Thank you, my lord,” he said, seeming even more sincere than usual.  In the final anxious moments before a battle, everyone became more sincere.  “I’ll try to keep out of the way.  I expect I’m still not much good in a proper battle, though better than I supposed last spring.”

“No one need be useless on a battlefield,” Thranduil assured him with a wan smile.  “I would lend you a bow if I thought your stature equal to it.  Are you armed?”

“I have my sword,” Bilbo said, drawing the long knife sheathed on his belt.  It also glowed with fierce blue light.  “It’s not much, I suppose, but it has been very useful to me recently, and is probably all I can handle.”

“It is a very fine blade,” Thranduil told him.  “It was made long ago by swordmasters no longer seen in Middle-earth.”

“So Gandalf said, and Lord Elrond.  We found them in a troll hoard east of Rivendell, this, Glamdring, which Gandalf carries, and Orcrist, which I see you now have.”

Thranduil nodded with grim interest.  “I am pleased to see you bear a weapon worthy of your courage,” he said.

Bilbo blushed and shuffled from one foot to the other.  “I don’t know about that,” he mumbled.  “I only do what I can.  I’m just a hobbit, not the stuff of which heroes are made.  I just hope to see my home again, to enjoy a cup of tea by the fire when all this is a memory.”

Thranduil regarded him with a bittersweet smile.  “In my experience, Bilbo Baggins,” he said, “that is exactly how heroes are made.”

The howling cries of the wolf-riders carried on the swirling winds as waves of them charged into Dale, throwing themselves against its few defenders.  There was fierce fighting in the ruins until the surviving Lake-men retreated as designed.  The goblin vanguard followed them, rushing into the valley in search of a foe, a seething mass of hideous warriors beneath black and red banners.  

As hordes of orcs and goblins continued to pour into the valley, Thranduil’s unease grew.  “We are not prepared for a battle of this magnitude,” he said, taking care to speak in their own tongue.  He did not know how much Bilbo understood, but he would spare the hobbit his misgivings if he could.  

“No, sire,” Dorthaer agreed, sitting his horse beside the King.  “We could do well with another two thousand spearmen, and at least six more companies of archers.”  

“Had I any warning of Bolg’s march, I would not have allowed us to be caught on a desolate hillside with little better than a heavy entourage.”  Thranduil frowned as the appalling smell of their enemy polluted the air.  “I suppose there is no choice now but to charge ahead and hope for the best.”

The goblins swarmed directly toward Thorin’s gate, breaking against the stones in an attempt to gain entry and rout its defenders.  When they were sufficiently massed in that crevice and unable to effectively maneuver, Thranduil signaled Galadhmir, and Legolas’ archers on the northern flank loosed their arrows.  Calenmir’s archers followed with a second barrage, and then the first rank of spearmen rushed forward with a deafening roar.  

Thranduil watched their progress from above.  The rearguard of the goblins crumpled beneath the force of the charge, but as their momentum waned the Elves signaled a slow retreat, protected by the archers as they reformed their lines.  Thranduil turned to look for Bilbo, but the hobbit had disappeared.  

Just as the goblins had reoriented themselves to challenge the Elves in the west, Dain and his Dwarves charged out of the east.  They descended on the black ranks with many savage war cries, and with them came the Lake-men.  Casualties were given and taken, but the goblins had the worst of it, and it looked as though Erebor’s defenders might prevail after all.

Determined to press their advantage, Thranduil ordered his soldiers to charge again.  The first rank rushed forward once more, and the second swung down out of the foothills to support them and close all avenues of retreat.  

All order broke down among the goblins as they realized their peril and sought some means of escape, either casting themselves into the river or scaling the sheer rock face.  It seemed victory was near.  Thranduil spurred ahead with his guard and signaled Tauriel’s archers to follow him and complete the cordon.  

“Hold, my lord!” Dorthaer called, halting them suddenly.  “Look!”

Thranduil followed his line of sight, and all hope of victory paled.  The slopes of the Mountain were teeming with fresh goblins rushing down to ambush the defenders from above.  They had only succeeded in stemming the first assault.

“Call the retreat!” Thranduil shouted to his herald.  “Back to the hills!  Get our soldiers out of there!”

The horn calls reverberated from the stones, and the Elves, Dwarves, and Men all pulled back to more defensible positions.  Thranduil swung forward with Tauriel’s archers behind his retreating spearmen, defending the withdrawal as best they could.  

All advantage was lost, and the tables were now turned.  “Reform the line!” Thranduil commanded, riding along a ridge wide enough to accommodate them.  “Reform the line!  Four ranks deep, two facing west, two facing east, back to back!”  They would be hard pressed to defend that position which had been so easily taken for granted.  The second wave of goblins were descending on them from the mountain paths even as a third wave advanced into the valley below.  “Legolas!  Set your archers on the northern flank and cover the slopes above!  Calenmir!  To the southern flank, and cover the approach from the valley!  Tauriel, to me!”

Thranduil dismounted and had his guard do the same.  He retrieved his own sword from his saddle and then slapped Espalass on the rump.  The seasoned warhorse knew what he was meant to do, and he scrabbled up the rise, leading the other horses in search of the western valleys away from the battle.  There was no point in wasting them, and they would be little use in close combat.  

Black arrows came pelting in among their ranks from above, biting into the spearman's shields.  A well-placed shot struck Thranduil across the chest, foiled by his armor, and Dorthaer dragged him down to a less conspicuous position.  Wounds were taken, but the soldiers were spared many fatalities by the silk reinforcement behind their armored tunics.  Merciless volleys from Legolas in the north and Calenmir in the south helped to thin the attack.  The dogs clashed with the Wargs.  In the heat of the moment, Thranduil still wondered where Bilbo had gone.  Perhaps he had taken shelter in the Ravenhill watchtower. 

The day wore on as they repulsed wave after wave of Bolg’s army.  Arrows were running short, as they always did in a protracted conflict, and several archers were racing back and forth among the rocks, gleaning any spent shafts still fit for use.  Eventually they were reduced to using the goblins’ own arrows against them, and finally even those were gone.  Thranduil’s heart sank as he saw Legolas’ company stow their bows, draw their knives and shrink into a defensive position, leaving the field for the spearmen.  Calenmir’s company soon did the same.

“Spears ready!” Galadhmir shouted, and the ranks bristled anew.  The goblins came rushing down at them regardless, determined to sweep them from the hills by weight of numbers.  They ran headlong into a forest of metal barbs, and their corpses began piling in frustrated heaps all around the Elves’ position.  The vile bats descended on the wounded and dead, whatever their allegiance.   

Tauriel’s archers exhausted their arrows, and they reformed around the King and his Guardsmen.  The goblins, seeming to realize the defenders’ new limitations, halted their attack from above in order to gather their strength for a concentrated charge.  Galadhmir reoriented the spearmen to counter it, and he put the handicapped archers to work throwing aside the dead.  Their own dead were rushed from the field and gathered in a sheltered place on the southern flank.  There was nowhere to shelter the wounded, and many refused to quit the field, tying off their injuries and continuing to fight as best they could, knowing death would only find them sooner if they lay down their weapons.

Finally the mass of goblins rushed down the slopes screaming and howling, and collided with the spearmen.  Many were impaled at once, but their fellows continued pressing forward until the sheer weight of them began pushing the Elves back, mightily though the soldiers strove to maintain their footing in the loose stones.

Thranduil signaled his herald, and the call went out for the flanks to attack and break the charge.  He swung forward with Tauriel’s company while Legolas attacked from the north.  It was nothing but butchery, sword and knife work as they cut their way through the crush of bodies both living and dead.  

A large orc on the ridge above was shouting commands at the goblins in their vile tongue, trying to regroup them as they were scattered.  His tone suddenly changed.  “Shakh!  Shakh!  Albi shakh!” he roared, and the others took up the call.  “Albi shakh!  Albi shakh!”  As one, they turned and plowed toward Thranduil.

Recognizing the shift in the attack and the orc’s intention to eliminate the King, Thranduil’s Guardsmen pulled him back, and Tauriel’s archers flooded into the breach.  Legolas and his company rushed forward from the north to join them, encircling many of the enemy in the process who were then dispatched by the spearmen.  The defense became more desperate as the Elves were divided, Galadhmir and Calenmir with the spearmen, Thranduil with Legolas and Tauriel and what remained of their companies, unable to reunite their forces amid the crush of the battle.  

They were steadily pushed back toward Ravenhill, the ceded ground strewn with blood and corpses.  Jostled together, the Elves continued to mount a furious defense, but the numbers were against them, and all the while Thranduil was thinking how intolerable it would be to die on the cold slopes of Erebor, leaving his beleaguered corner of Greenwood unprotected.  Clearly his soldiers were of the same mind, and they rallied around him with a ferocity which betrayed their desperation, defending the slow retreat.  As hope wore thin, both Legolas and Tauriel surrendered to their strongest sentiments and pushed their way to his side to make their last stand among the King’s Guard.  

The gloom only deepened as the sun began to set behind the storm clouds, drawing a pitiless veil over the ruin of a day which had begun with so much hope.  A force of larger orcs descended upon the Elves to accomplish what the goblins could not, swinging broad iron blades and heavy maces, intent upon smashing their way through, but still the Galennath threw themselves in front of the King.  It wrung Thranduil’s heart to see them sacrifice themselves, his grief and fury mounting until it became intolerable.  

The battle dragged on, hour after bloody hour, and the only foreseeable end was too terrible to contemplate.  Dorthaer was barking orders at the Guardsmen, trying to reform their lines amid the confusion, and Thranduil found himself shoulder to shoulder with Tauriel as several orcs attacked them at once.  She leapt forward to defend him with only her knives, and succeeded in killing several before she fell beneath the crushing blow of a mace.  

Enraged, Thranduil stepped over her, and the blow from his fist alone was enough to put the orc down.  He struck the others to pieces with his sword, determined that they would not touch her again.  As he raised his blade in the next breathless moment, he realized with sudden clarity that he had been using his own sword ever since he had sent away the horses.  He tossed it to Legolas and drew Orcrist once more, its cold blue light almost blinding in the dark.

The enemy recognized the Goblin Cleaver for what it was, and they quailed in fear despite the angry shouting from their captains.  Without waiting for them to regroup, Thranduil led a charge against them, changing the direction of the battle.  His Elves followed him with a roar, driving the enemy back along the ridge.  Lord Galadhmir and the spearmen came charging forward as well, everyone rallying to the brilliant blue beacon in the King’s hand.  The two sides of their army were reunited, and a new line of spears and shields was formed to secure the reclaimed ground and defend the wounded behind them.

It was ultimately a futile victory, considering how woefully outnumbered they still were, but surrender was impossible.  In the one moment of calm before the battle rejoined, Galadhmir found Thranduil and they briefly clasped one another by the wrist, still alive despite it all.  They both understood that the only victory they were likely to claw out of that mess would be the count of bodies they left in their wake.  If die they must, they would die as they had lived, as brothers, back to back, swords in hand.  

The orcs had beaten the goblins into some semblance of order once again, and their black ranks gathered for another charge.  “Spears ready!” Galadhmir shouted again, and the spearmen braced themselves among the rocks.  

A great shout and the clear call of trumpets echoed across the valley below.  The stone barricade fell away from the gate of Erebor with a resounding crash into the headwaters of the river, and Thorin Oakenshield charged forth with his company, all of them armed like warrior kings out of the dragon’s hoard.  

“To me!  To me!  Elves and Men!  To me!  O my kinsfolk!” Thorin thundered, calling everyone to join him, spearheading a charge directly down the center of the battlefield toward Bolg and his formidable bodyguard.  

Dain and all his Dwarves rushed out of the eastern foothills, and many of the Lake-men came with them.  Recognizing Thorin’s initiative as their last best hope, Thranduil thumped Galadhmir on the shoulder.  “Take the second rank!” he said.  “Go!”  Galadhmir obeyed, leading half their spearmen down out of the west.  The rest of them stayed to hold the heights lest they forfeit them completely.  

At first it seemed the defenders would have their way.  The force of the charge was not broken by the resistance of the goblins, and great numbers of the enemy were slain as Thorin pressed forward.  The fearsome reputation of the Dwarvish veterans was well deserved.  Thranduil considered joining them, but he could see still more goblins massing above them and abandoned the idea.

“Stand your ground, Thranduil,” Gandalf said, appearing beside him and echoing his thoughts.  “You will soon have trouble enough, and without you and Bard our friends below would be completely surrounded.”

Thranduil turned to ask the wizard a few sharp questions, but Gandalf was already headed for a higher ridge.  His complaints would have to wait.  The King’s Guardsmen stood around him, bruised and stained by all manner of blood, as he was.  A cursory glance through their battle-worn soldiers told him Legolas was missing.  “Dorthaer,” he asked stiffly, “where is my son?”

“My lord, the prince has fallen back to oversee the defense of the wounded,” Dorthaer answered.

Thranduil grunted.  Tauriel would be with him, then.  It may be an empty consolation considering their larger circumstances, but he would take whatever he could get.

Perhaps it was inevitable, but Thranduil felt his heart sink as Thorin’s attack slowed in the valley.  They were beset on all sides, their numbers sadly diminished, unable to breach Bolg’s bodyguard.  They were surrounded despite them, beyond the reach of all help.  Their unguarded flanks collapsed, and Bolg charged in to finish them.

Thranduil had no time to lament it, because the goblins descended again from the heights with renewed strength and crashed into the shield wall with enough force to breach it in three places.  The archers rushed forward to firm the line and the chaotic hand-to-hand fighting began once more.  There seemed to be no end to them, and the battle finally seemed truly lost.  They would be overcome one by one, driven to exhaustion or overwhelmed by sheer numbers.  It was not where Thranduil would have chosen to die, but he could not ask for better companions in defeat.  His guard refused to despair, heedless of their own losses, striking down the swarming goblins as though there were still some hope of escape.  When it was all over and the remnant of Bolg’s army had been dispersed, Thranduil hoped Linhir and Anárion would see fit to erect some monument to their memory.  

The longer he considered their fate, the more Thranduil resented it.  His initial resignation erupted into anger, and he threw himself against the goblins with new violence.  He would not consent to die, not yet, and he had no wish to sacrifice his heirs and his friends.  “What will you do, Mithrandir?” he shouted, catching a glimpse of the wizard sitting on the ridge behind them as if deep in thought.  “Do you intend to leave us here?”

The last red rays of sunset streamed out of the clouds torn by the wind, but it only made the battlefield more hideous, a grisly field of death and destruction teeming with goblins like ants on a carcass.  Disgusted by the sight, Thranduil was dourly determined that as many as he could manage would also lie dead before he joined them.

A thin and frantic voice pierced the noise of the battle.  Thranduil could not make out the words over the screeching cacophony all around him, but there was no fear in it.  Those nearer the sound also took up the call, and those who could spare a moment turned their eyes skyward.

“The Eagles!  The Eagles!  The Eagles are coming!”

Chapter 47 - The Affairs of Wizards VIII




The great Eagles of Hithaeglir came stooping out of the sky in staggering numbers, descending on the Mountain with piercing cries, crushing the goblins in their talons and sweeping them off the cliffs to be dashed on the rocks below.  One flew so near that Thranduil and his Elves were almost blown over in the wake of its massive wings, but it plowed through the ranks set against them and nearly cleared the field of living foes.  Those few who survived were easily dispatched by the Elves, and soon the slopes were completely reclaimed.

Unchallenged on the heights, Thranduil turned and saw an army of goblins still in the valley.  Thorin, Dain, and Galadhmir were trapped on a small hill with what remained of their forces, reduced to simply defending themselves against the continuous assault of Bolg and his soldiers.  They would not be friendless for long.

“Galennath!” Thranduil called with new vigor, dragging his fallen banner up from the dirt and holding Orcrist aloft.  “Let us end this!  Spears to the center!  Archers on the wings!”







Lord Galadhmir pulled a mortally wounded spearman back from the first rank, and his fellows shifted to close his place lest the goblins pierce their defenses.  The screeching attackers had thankfully spent their arrows, broken thickets of them embedded in every Elvish shield.  Only the advantage of higher ground prevented Bolg and his minions from engulfing them all.  

The Dwarves at bay beside them were likewise proving their worth.  Their axes and mattocks struck to pieces any goblin who dared to challenge them, but challengers were abundant, thousands of them set against a few hundred.  The arrival of the Eagles had lightened their hearts for a moment, but the great birds were entirely occupied clearing the slopes, and Bolg was pressing his advantage while they were elsewhere.  Wave after wave of goblins charged up the hill in a rising tide, and were beaten back with difficulty.  Oakenshield himself, the celebrated King under the Mountain, was wounded almost beyond all hope, but still his companions defended him.  Galadhmir could not fault them for that.  The Galennath would do the same for their own King.

He was himself reduced to one hand, the other tied in a makeshift bandage.  The incessant noise, the pervasive stench, and the hideous display of death all around him had begun to grate on his nerves, especially after enduring it all day.  He inevitably thought of his wife, her grief if both he and their son failed to return from Erebor.  It conjured memories of their first son, slain before the Black Gate of Mordor.  Galadhmir hated those goblins, those orcs, all those hateful creatures who lived only to destroy the good and fair things of the world.  They may take him now, but not before he made his mark.

“Spears!” he shouted above the din.  “Thrust!”

As one, the weary soldiers advanced two paces, pushing back the attack with spear and shield, then retreated back to their defensive line.  And the so grisy dance continued, a morass of blood and sweat and filth.  

Bolg was shouting at his army from the back of his Warg, waving his jagged scimitar, impatient with the stalemate.  The fear of him whipped the goblins into a greater frenzy, and they rushed at the defenders as one.  Knowing death was the only alternative to victory, Galadhmir and his Elves braced themselves behind their shields as the wall of flesh slammed into them with enough force to push them back several paces.  

Channeling all his anger, grief, frustration, and despair, Galadhmir pushed back against his shield with all the strength he had left, his armored boots tearing into the earth.  His soldiers did likewise, straining against the weight until goblins were being pressed to death between them.  They had nothing left, nothing but their own stubborn pride in the face of defeat.  

The desperate roar of the survivors suddenly became a defiant war cry once again.  Galadhmir looked up, and a tear came to his eye as he saw the King’s formation charging down from the hills.  Thranduil was coming for them, as he always did.  Galadhmir could see him on the flank, distinguished by his fiery blue sword.  

The wedge of spears collided with the rear of Bolg’s army and plowed forward, the archers on the wings defending the charge with their knives, frustrating any attempt to encircle them as they pushed deeper into the crush of goblins, trying to reach their fellows trapped on the hill.  

Bolg turned against them, ordering a charge of his own.  The lesser goblins gave way, leaving the field for him and his bodyguard.  They were thick and well armored, and they broke the Elvish charge against them, determined to prevent the reunification of their foes.  

The deadly light of Orcrist was dancing as Thranduil hacked his way through the horde, a sharp spark in the deepening dark of night.  Galadhmir and his soldiers strained to hold the line even as they felt the others straining toward them on the other side of the field, but the gap could not be closed.  It was not enough.  Bolg’s army still outnumbered them, and his heavy infantry held their ground.  The Elves were inflicting ruinous casualties, but they had neither the time nor the numbers to sustain the battle.  It was not enough.

Despair flooded Galadhmir’s heart once again.  They had given their all, and it was not enough.  







Thranduil was enormously frustrated by their inability to advance any farther, and for the moment he abandoned the attempt to reach Galadhmir, turning his wrath to a nearer quarry.  He called his Guardsmen to him, ordered the spearmen to fall back into a defensive position, and struck out directly toward Bolg himself.

The great orcs surrounding him were a daunting obstacle, but there was no time for second thoughts.  Accompanied by the best soldiers the Wood could boast, Thranduil threw himself against their ranks like a wild thing, trying to finish what Thorin had begun.  As they crossed swords and bashed each other bloody, Thranduil’s only objective was to carve his way nearer that dark prince of fiends and drag him down.  The fighting became more bestial, a raw fury of clawing, punching, kicking, and pawing when their blades did not suffice.  He heard his Guardsmen close ranks behind him as they were surrounded, and the spearmen resumed their advance to defend him.  Still Bolg kept out of reach, allowing his guard to bear the brunt of the attack, confident in his victory.  

They could not break free of the vicious tangle of warriors, and once again the combat devolved into a fight for survival in the face of an almost inevitable defeat.  Thranduil struck off an orc’s head with such force that Orcrist bit into the metal breastplate with a shock he could feel into his shoulders.  In a last mad effort, he took up the orc’s fallen scimitar and threw it as one might a knife or an axe.  He failed to land a killing stroke, but the blade struck Bolg hard enough to knock his head back.  

A monstrous roar split the battle, unlike anything they had heard since the death of the dragon.  An enormous black shape smashed through the ranks, apparently impervious to any weapon they possessed.  After a moment Thranduil recognized it to be a bear, the largest bear he had ever seen or imagined, trampling and mauling its way toward the defenders on the hill.  “Beorn,” he breathed, guessing him to be his mercurial neighbor in the south, although they had never met.  He was surpassingly glad to see him then.  

The bear Beorn ravaged his way through the crowd of goblins, as irresistible as a whirlwind.  He took up the limp form of Thorin from behind the Dwarves and bore him away to safety beyond the battle.  Bolg, seeming to understand that the tide had inexplicably turned, stirred up his following to attack again, but new hope had been kindled in the remnant who remained, and they firmed their defense.  

“Hold the line!” Thranduil encouraged them, seeing the Eagles returning from the Mountain to join the assault.  “Do not let them scatter!”  But he was suddenly interrupted by Neldorín falling limp against him.  

Thranduil caught his wounded Guardsman by the arm, immediately concerned, but Neldorín was already passing the threshold of death, kneeling in a pool of his own blood.  “I am sorry,” he gasped with his last breath, unable to fight any more.  

Beorn soon returned in an unbridled rage, destroying those who would not flee.  Thranduil deemed retreat the better part of valor, and scrambled away with his guards to rejoin the spearmen, dragging Neldorín’s body with them.  The bear crashed through what remained of Bolg’s bodyguard, scattering them like so many matchsticks.  He struck Bolg off his Warg with one great clout of his paw, and then crushed him bodily into the dirt.  Even after all the violence of that day, the raw brutality of it was shocking, and Thranduil knew he would remember the sound of the orc’s splintered bones for a long time afterward.  

The dismay which then fell upon the goblins was the ruin of them.  They fled, divided and leaderless, and were utterly routed.  Bard and Dain pursued those who leapt into the river or fled into the west, while the Elves gave chase into the south, even unto the borders of the marshes.  There Thranduil gave up the pursuit.  There were not many goblins left, and those few who may escape the depths of the marshes alive would be little challenge for the Forest Guard.

“Today has been foul enough without wallowing again in this rotting slime,” Galadhmir agreed, stepping back from the mire.  

Thranduil put a weary arm around Galadhmir’s shoulders and pulled him into a rough embrace, heedless of who may see it.  “Still alive,” he said, the strain in his voice betraying his emotion.  It had been a very long day.  Then he shoved his brother away with coarse affection.  

Galadhmir smiled, understanding and agreeing with everything Thranduil left unspoken.  “I think you owe him more than honey this time,” he said.

It was well past midnight when they arrived back at the battlefield.  Legolas received them gladly, grateful to see them both alive and well.  He and the other lightly wounded had been gathering their casualties, preparing the dead and treating the injured.  Thranduil commended their efforts and left them to continue.  He had business with Gandalf burning upon his mind.  He was crusted with gore and could feel several long cuts scabbing across his face, but he would say what he wished to say before all else.

The wizard was sitting on a rock outside the camp which had sprung up again in Dale, away from the worst carnage.  Gandalf’s arm was bandaged in a sling, but despite that handicap he was valiantly endeavoring to fill his pipe.  “Ah, Thranduil!” he said, marking his approach.  “Come help me with this.”

Thranduil found himself complying without question, holding the pipe and the pouch of dried leaf as Gandalf arranged it to his satisfaction.  It did not improve his disposition.  “Mithrandir,” he began, waving away the smoke as Gandalf set the contents alight and extinguished the match, “perhaps I did not have the pleasure of understanding you, but did you say this morning that Bolg and his army came sooner than you guessed?”  His tone became much sharper, betraying his irritation.  “You knew an army of goblins was moving against us, and you said nothing?”

None of his amazement was feigned.  He was genuinely astounded by the omission, and possibly outraged, but he was still trying to make sense of his own feelings in the wake of what had happened.  The way Gandalf continued to placidly stare at him from behind a veil of pipesmoke was not helping him to remain calm.

“When were you going to mention it?” Thranduil demanded, becoming more agitated.  “You let me walk blithely into the wild to be ambushed!  Would it have spoiled some vast, inscrutable plan to say, ‘Be on your guard, Thranduil; orcs are marching from Gundabad?’  Would you have allowed my army and Dain’s to waste themselves in pointless combat with a host on the march to finish us?”

“Did I allow it?” Gandalf asked simply, apparently unimpressed by Thranduil’s hysterics.  “It is not my task to preserve you from all dangers, but to assist only.  The battle was inevitable; only the time and place were in question.  You were here and played your part admirably.  The battle is won, the goblins are destroyed, the dragon is dead, and Dol Guldur is vacant.  All has ended well, so I fail to see why you should be so snappish.  Surely you do not mean to imply that my confidence in you was misplaced.”

Thranduil scoffed indignantly, realizing he was not to be honored with an answer.  Once again, he had been deployed like a pawn in a larger game.  It was enormously frustrating.  “You use me,” he said at last.  It was a baldfaced accusation, but not without some grudging respect for how well the wizard played the game.  

Gandalf was unfazed.  “Yes,” he admitted with no shame whatsoever, “and so long as you are here to defend the good of this world, I will continue to use you.  When you have come again to your senses, perhaps you will be able to see flattery in that.  In the meantime, go attend your hurts and gather your people, Oropherion.  We have a great many things to resolve before we leave this place.”

Thranduil left him as he was bidden, not because he was satisfied, but because he knew further argument was useless.  Mithrandir would have his way despite him, as usual, and even as Thranduil resented the liberties taken at his expense, he could not deny that he was still deeply reassured by the wizard’s presence.  No doubt it was the stirring of some primal instinct even his stubborn pride could not smother.  

The camp was a somber place.  The multitude of dead were being organized in the field, but the wounded had been gathered into tents.  Rumor of the King’s return had spread, and Gwaelas had come out to receive him.  There was nowhere to bathe in that place, but Gwaelas had already seen Thranduil’s pavilion erected and furnished as well as could be expected.  A bucket of icy water must suffice.  He relieved the King of his filthy armor, provided him with clean clothes, then wet a cloth and began to gently clean the wounds on his face.  

As he submitted to Gwaelas’ attentions, Thranduil consciously cleared his mind, purging the frustration, anxiety, grief, and nervous tension of the battle.  It so completely drained him that his hands almost began to shake.  Only the grief remained; he had not yet been able to mourn their fallen.  He was not yet entirely certain who they had lost, and he dreaded the cold list of names which would inevitably be presented to him.  

Thranduil opened his eyes again when Gwaelas had finished.  The water in the bucket had turned a rusty red, and the left side of his face felt stiff and painful.  He would have to take care not to worsen it before he could heal, though he was certain he would not be much tempted to smile that night.  

Legolas entered the pavilion, and Thranduil quietly dismissed Gwaelas.  “What is the damage?” the King asked.

Legolas could not hide a brief grimace as he noted his father’s injuries.  “We are less than half the host we were before,” he said, “although I suppose it might have been worse.”

Thranduil was too tired to entertain hypothetical optimism.  “Legolas,” he said, lowering his voice and coming directly to the point, “where is Tauriel?”

"She is injured, but is in no danger of death," Legolas told him.  "Broken bones and bruises.  She has been well attended and is resting with the others."

Thranduil nodded.  “Take me there.”

The wounded had been gathered into a cluster of tents near the river, Men, Dwarves, and Elves alike.  There were so many that it was like a small city of its own.  The Elvish healers staying in the encampment beside Lake-town had hurried up the river when they had perceived the battle, but there were still too few of them, and they rushed among the tents giving terse directions to those ambulatory casualties who had been pressed into service as their assistants.  They all quieted and bowed to acknowledge the King as he passed, but immediately resumed their frenetic activity behind him.  Field hospitals were no novelty in Mirkwood.

Legolas did not stay, but left to attend his duties elsewhere.  Thranduil wandered the aisles for another few hours, giving a moment of his time and a word of encouragement to whomever seemed in need of it.  Finally, as the first glow of dawn touched the sky, he found her.  Tauriel lay on a folded piece of canvas as one dead, but her color was good, and her spirit was not unduly anxious. 

“It looks worse than it is, my lord,” a passing healer assured him, noting his concern.  “She needs only time, and should mend well.”

Thranduil nodded, and the healer returned to his work.  After a surreptitious sideways glance to confirm that he was unobserved, Thranduil chose to indulge his own sentiments for once, and slipped inside the tent.  

Tauriel lay quiet, deep in a recuperative sleep induced by the healers.  It had been a very cold night, but there were not enough blankets for everyone.  Her sleeve and the right side of her leggings had been cut to accommodate splints, and Thranduil could see that her ribs were heavily bandaged as well.  He sat down beside her, sorry to see her suffer, but very grateful she had survived.  He could not pretend she was nothing to him.

Finally he dared to gently stroke her face, to touch her mind as he had not for many years.  There she was, just as he remembered her as a child, a warm glow of innocence unconsciously reassured by his presence.  She was a bright point in a dark world, her ambition unsullied by vainglory, her aggression motivated only by devotion.  

Although it was certainly an unjustified act of favoritism, Thranduil leaned into their connection rather than break it, strengthening it until he could feel her weariness, her relief in their victory, and her pain.  He was aware of the strong beat of her heart, the life coursing through her veins, and every hurt and injury she endured.  Simply because he could, Thranduil began knitting her broken bones together with greater urgency.  He did not heal her completely lest his favor be too obvious, but he made certain she had a good start.  He would not have her suffer too much or too long if he could help it, and the return journey would be a challenge if she could not pull herself together soon.  

Before he left, he removed his cloak and lay it over her against the cold.  He no longer cared who noticed it.  

As he stepped back into the pale dawn, Thranduil was again accosted by Mithrandir.  “My lord,” he began solemnly, “the King under the Mountain is gravely wounded and will not long survive.  Do you wish to be reconciled before he dies?”

“I am willing, if Thorin will allow it,” Thranduil said.  “I never sought a quarrel with him.”

“Then let us try.  There is little time.”

They wound their way through the maze of tents until they arrived at one with an honor guard of Dwarves standing outside in full armor.  Gandalf bid Thranduil wait as he approached and sought entry.  The guards allowed it, but crossed their mattocks again behind him.  Thranduil was obviously not meant to hear the exchange within, but he could.

“Gandalf,” a Dwarf greeted him anxiously, “has the hobbit been found?”

Thranduil frowned.  He had not realized Bilbo was still missing.

“Not yet,” Gandalf admitted, and he also sounded anxious on that score.  “But the Elvenking has come with me, and he would make his peace with the King under the Mountain, if he may.”

“He would do better to keep to his own and give our king no further trouble in his final hours,” another Dwarf complained.  “Considering our grievances, we want no part with him.”

“Even now, after all that has transpired, you are content to nurse your grievances?” Gandalf protested in a harsh whisper.  “Was he cruel to you?  Did he not feed you and keep you safe even after you treated him with contempt?  Now he has helped you to reclaim the Mountain and make peace with your neighbors.  Is that not enough?”

“It is a strange justice which allows him who has not been wronged to name the price of reconciliation.”

“Not wronged by any of you, perhaps,” Gandalf said, “but wronged he was, and grievously, in the deep years long past, though he has been gracious enough to make no mention of it.  If he is wary of Dwarves, he has good cause.  Who was compelled to answer for the blood of Thranduil’s grandfathers and of his mother’s brothers?  Remember the rape of Menegroth by the Broadbeams of Nogrod.  That will have to be considered if we are going to weigh personal grievances.  Can we not part as allies in war?”

“Enough.”  The voice was weak, but formidable.  It must be Thorin himself.  “I will have no more of this bickering.  I will see him.”

The white-bearded Dwarf opened the tent and spoke to the guards, then grudgingly held it open to Thranduil.

It was still not a very welcoming assembly inside, eleven Dwarves dimly lit by a single lantern, all staring at him with some degree of resentment and suspicion.  Truthfully, Thranduil would not have braved the encounter without Gandalf.  Thorin was heavily bandaged, lying on as regal a bed as could be fashioned for him out of their scant resources.  He was pale and weak, and had that deep and distant look of one who sees his own end.  “I cannot say that I ever wished to meet you again, Elvenking,” he said curtly, “but it seems we cannot avoid one another.”

Thranduil nodded graciously.  The greeting may have seemed discourteous on its face, but he thought he could detect instead a kind of brutal candor intended to spare the pride of both.  “I suspect we were never destined to be great friends,” he agreed, “but if the Wood and the Mountain are both to thrive, we must at least come to terms.”

“The cruel lot of kings,” Thorin observed with a mirthless smile, “forced to abase ourselves before our foes for the good of all.  Very well, then.  Lest you have any more cause to triumph over me, I will speak first.”  He paused for a moment to catch his breath, his brow creased with pain.  “I have reflected on my reign with some dissatisfaction.  I will confess that I regret the manner in which I spoke to you at our first meeting.  I was proud and zealous to defend the honor and treasures of my house, sentiments which are surely not strange to you if you have come honestly by your reputation.”

“Certain proclivities of mine have been remarked upon,” Thranduil allowed.  

“Moreover, I regret my conduct at the Gate.  I can offer no excuse except to assume the madness of the dragon was upon me.  I will not beg your pardon, because we have some pride still, but had we to begin again I would receive your delegation with greater courtesy.”

“I will give you my pardon, King under the Mountain,” Thranduil said, “whether you ask it or not.  For my part, I will say that I also regret the hostility of our first meeting, but you may not have been mistaken in your suspicion that I would have hindered your quest had I known your purpose.  Even now I cannot see how it could have been avoided.  I am afraid we could only do, absurdly, what it had been given to us to do, and I cannot fault you for that.”

“No,” Thorin agreed wearily.  “Nor I you.  Such are the perils of meddling in the affairs of wizards.  You are never quite certain where you stand.”

They both looked briefly at Gandalf, who armed himself with an incredulous scowl.  

Thranduil saw that Thorin was weakening, fighting for each labored breath.  “I will not importune you further,” he said, “except to pledge my goodwill to your heirs if they will have it.  The Mountain and the Wood need not live in enmity with one another.  But, however that may be, we will part now as Gandalf has said, as allies in war, and that will suffice for today.”

Thorin nodded, his eyes closed, his face ashen, his life ebbing slowly away.  

Thranduil turned and left him in peace, leaving the close atmosphere of the tent for the biting cold of the new morning.  He was beginning to realize how many days it had been since he had slept properly, and the lingering aura of death and grief which hung over their victory did not make the deprivation any easier to bear.  Then he remembered that he had not eaten at all the previous day.  He was spent, dispirited, and ravenously hungry.  

There was a great deal yet to resolve, as Gandalf had observed.  They must clear the field, bury the dead, reopen the Mountain, and settle all claims on the treasure before any of them could consider returning home.  Someone must find the hobbit.  It would be another very long day, although of a very different sort.  

Thranduil looked up to see Espalass wandering through the battlefield, guiding his modest herd of warhorses in search of their masters.  He neighed mightily, tasting the air for familiar scents.  It was all well and good to graze in the empty valleys, but after an uncomfortable night he no doubt wanted his saddle removed and a ration of grain.  Thranduil whistled for him, a sound which immediately pricked all their ears, and they came running.  

Their simple familiarity was a comfort after the chaos of the previous day, and Thranduil spared himself a moment to appreciate the velvet nose, the warm blast of air from the beast’s nostrils as Espalass greeted him.  The violence of war never ceased to impress upon him the shocking fragility of life and how much it deserved to be cherished.  

Thranduil gathered the reins and swung astride, leading the troop of horses back toward the camp.  With any luck, they could all find something to eat.  
  






Bonus points to those who caught the homage to Ian McKellen’s performance in The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1982, one of my favorite movies.  Go watch it!  (Timestamp 34:50)

Chapter 48 - The Affairs of Wizards IX




The Lord of the Eagles assembled his companions on Ravenhill later that morning to formally take their leave.  Dain, Thranduil, Bard, and Gandalf came to bid them farewell.  The great birds had done them an incredible service, and Dáin had taken care not to come empty-handed.  

They were impressive creatures, evoking a primal awe in Thranduil which did not often stir anymore.  They were the messengers of the Valar, the eyes of the Elder King in Middle-earth.  Thranduil had often seen them from afar, but had only spoken with them once before when Radagast had summoned one to spy out the doings of the Wainriders in the east.  They were yet another living link to the First Age, the world of Thranduil’s childhood, and their presence made the tangible reality of the Blessed Realm seem much more present than it often did to those who had never seen it.  

“Our task is done,” their Lord said.  “We will return to our eyries and leave you to the spoils.  The mountains are emptied, and we may expect to have peace for many years.”

“We are greatly indebted to you and your people, O Windlord,” Dáin said very grandly.  “It would please us if you would accept these tokens of our gratitude.  We have nothing else an eagle may prize, but we would not have it said that Dáin Ironfoot allowed you to leave unrewarded.”

He presented the Eagles with a golden crown for their Lord and golden collars for his lieutenants.  The ornaments were accepted with gracious condescension.  

“May your people be blessed, Dáin Ironfoot, beneath the hills beneath the sun,” the Windlord bade, the diadem glinting on his brow.  “Enjoy the victory which was so dearly bought.”

The great Eagle turned then to Gandalf.  “Farewell, O Gandalf, as you continue about your task.  May all your ventures prove as profitable as this one.”

“Farewell, Lord Gwaihir!” Gandalf returned jovially.  “May your wings never tire, and your eyes never dim!”

Lastly, the Lord of the Eagles turned his gaze upon Thranduil.  His eyes were dark and sharp with depths no Man or Elf could read.  “Farewell, Elvenking of the Wood, Oropher’s son,” he said.  “Long may your reign endure against the darkness.”

“It may yet,” Thranduil agreed, “due in no small part to your timely assistance, and for that you have my enduring gratitude.  I am certain I owe you my life, which is quite precious to me, though perhaps of little consequence to Elder Lords.”

“Your life, son of Doriath, is of great value to many,” Lord Gwaihir assured him solemnly.  “There is one who continually pleads your cause before the Thrones of the West.  Her prayers are heard.”

Blindsided, Thranduil could not form a coherent reply.  His heart quickened, and his mind churned with a thousand questions, but he could sense that it was already an extraordinary grace to receive such a message, and it would be impertinent to demand more.  

Lord Gwaihir spread his great wings.  “Farewell, wherever you fare,” he said in parting, “till your eyries receive you at the journey’s end.”

“May the wind under your wings bear you where the sun sails and the moon walks,” Thranduil replied on behalf of them all, remembering the response Radagast had taught him.  

The wake of the Eagles’ wings was like the wind in the vanguard of a storm as the enormous flock took to the air in turns, lifting off the crags and soaring away to the west.  Thranduil watched them go, knowing he may never see anything quite so magnificent again.  

When the Eagles had disappeared into the distance, the small assembly returned into the valley in silence.  Thorin had not yet died, and it seemed vulgar to discuss their outstanding business while he still drew breath.  

Thranduil wandered toward the camp, oblivious for the moment to all else, deep in his own thoughts.  Gwaihir’s words had offered only the briefest glimpse beyond the bounds of the mortal world.  Who was she who interceded for him so faithfully?  It could be his mother, or perhaps it could be Melian, but he wanted to believe it was his wife.  It was a profoundly bittersweet consolation to imagine she was somehow aware of the trials he continued to endure in service of her dying wish, both of them rising to the demands of duty in different spheres until their task was done.  Wherever she was, Thranduil knew Lindóriel’s heart would be turned toward Greenwood.  Perhaps a day would finally come when there was no more war, and they would be free to find one another again.  Until then they would soldier on as they must, lovelorn exiles on opposite sides of the world.

He paused to allow a stiff western breeze to break across his face.  There were no sweet aromas upon it, only the cold and barren scents of winter, but Thranduil breathed deeply all the same.  Someday their time would come.  Someday the wars would end, or he would finally be killed, and then everything would be new.  But today was not that day.  Today he was the King, today he had an army to lead and a people to rule, duties to perform and vows to keep.  Someday would come in its own time, and he knew his queen understood that.

“You are the Elvenking.”

Thranduil was pulled out of his thoughts by an unfamiliar voice.  He turned and saw a coarse giant of a Man taking his ease beneath an ancient spruce which had given its lower limbs for firewood.  “You are Beorn,” he said, making an educated guess.  

The giant nodded.  “I am.  It pleases me to see you still alive, my lord.”

“I am pleased to still be alive,” Thranduil admitted, “and I doubt it would be so had you not come.  I cannot imagine how to properly reward you.  Name it, and it will be yours if it lies within my power to grant.”

“I ask no reward,” Beorn insisted.  “It is enough that you live, friend of my friends and foe of my foes.”  He gathered himself and climbed to his feet.  It was not often that Thranduil encountered someone taller than himself.  “I would not suffer vermin like Bolg to be the ruin of you.  Live.  Fight.  Triumph.  That would please me very much.”  He nodded at Thranduil with an amiable smile, and then abruptly turned and ambled away into the ruins beyond the camp.

Bemused by Beorn’s brusque courtesy, Thranduil watched the retreating figure until he disappeared among the trees.  He might have lingered there longer, but the smell of roasting venison drew him in the other direction.  It was high time he had a substantive meal.  

He was met at the edge of the camp by Bard.  “My Lord Thranduil,” he began with quiet urgency, “Bilbo Baggins has not yet been found, either living or dead.  Where did you last see him?”

“I set him behind us near Ravenhill before the battle began,” Thranduil told him, sharing his concern.  “I must confess I did not see him after that, although I suspect I heard his voice near the watchtower just as the Eagles arrived.”

Bard nodded.  “A final search will be made,” he said, and rushed away to arrange it.  

It was only a few hours later that word swept through the camp that the hobbit had indeed been found somewhere among the bare rocks of Ravenhill.  Soon afterward came the news that Thorin Oakenshield had finally succumbed to his wounds.  The King under the Mountain was dead, and his throne was vacant.  The Dwarves sang their laments, and the oppressive pall of sorrow which lingered over the survivors became only heavier.  Plans for his burial began.  

The cold afternoon was deepening into evening when Thranduil saw Bilbo wandering aimlessly toward a large open campfire, his arms wrapped about him against the cold.  The hobbit’s grief was plain to see, and he had clearly been weeping in some hidden place for some time.  It was a sentiment Thranduil understood all too well.  He retrieved some refreshment and went to join him.

“I know you are still far from home, Master Baggins,” he said gently, “and I cannot offer you that cup of tea, but I hope you can make do with something stronger.”

Bilbo accepted the wine gratefully, though still in very low spirits.  “Thank you, my lord.”  

Thranduil sat down beside him on another tree ring, his own cup in hand.  He recognized that desolate look that came when the tears were spent, and he knew the only remedy was pleasant distraction.  “Tell me about your home,” he said.

“Oh.”  Bilbo had to gather his thoughts, but he seemed pleased by the request.  “Well, the Shire is a fair green country, all rolling hills and farms and meadows, clear streams and hedgerows.  Very unlike your home, my lord.  It smells of flowers in the spring, herbs in the summer, and apples in the autumn.  Our houses are dug right into the hillside like a rabbit’s warren, grass on top, garden in the front.”  He smiled.  “Not so unlike your home after all, I suppose.”

Thranduil smiled as well.  “It sounds idyllic,” he said.  “There has been very little peace in Mirkwood for a very long time.”

“The inhabitants of Hobbiton would have no patience for the troubles you endure, my lord,” Bilbo insisted, his mood lightening.  “Anything adventurous or unexpected is considered extremely irregular.  We must have our breakfast in the morning, our post twice a day, and as many as six other meals before bedtime.”

“Oh, better and better,” Thranduil laughed.  

Bilbo’s smile faded as he gazed distantly into the dancing flames.  “No doubt it all seems very quaint and foolish to great lords like yourself who must face the dark things of the world.”

“It sounds like a very sensible and civilized way of life,” Thranduil insisted.  “If the rest of us cannot enjoy it, I am pleased to know there are some who can.”  

They both looked up as they saw Gandalf approaching the fire.  “There you are, Mr. Baggins,” the wizard said, seeming both relieved and sympathetic.  “I almost feared we had lost you again.  Now is no time to be making yourself ill by staying out in the cold and neglecting to eat, though I see the good Elvenking has been plying you with drink.  Come.  I have prepared a place for you to sup and sleep, and hopefully regain your strength for what tomorrow will bring.”

Bilbo drained his cup before he stood and handed it back to Thranduil.  “Thank you, my lord,” he said again.  “You have been very gracious.”

“And you have been very courageous, Master Baggins.” Thranduil said.  “Go now with Gandalf and keep yourself well.  I have already made it clear that I shall be quite cross with him if you come to harm.”

The comment elicited the ghost of an incredulous laugh from Bilbo, as he had hoped it would, but Gandalf just scowled.  The wizard gathered the hobbit, and then helped himself to Thranduil’s cup.  “What have you been giving him?” he grumbled.  “Not that wretched sweet stuff, I hope.”  He tasted the contents, and his expression lightened.  “Ah, very nice.  A fine vintage.  Allow me the indulgence, my lord; this has all been quite an adventure.”






The next days were cold and somber and many preparations were undertaken both in the camp and in the Mountain, the last great effort before the unexpectedly eventful reconquest of Erebor would be resolved.  Winter was coming on quickly, and they were all anxious to return to their homes.

At last, when all was ready, Thranduil and Bard presided over the burial of the Men and Elves slain in the battle.  There were hundreds of them, all laid upon one another in a wide trench which had been dug beside the ruins of Dale.  The fallen Dwarves were gathered elsewhere.  

An honor guard stood around the edge of the enormous grave commanded by Legolas and Galadhmir, those survivors who were hale enough to stand in ranks.  Thranduil could forgive them if they looked worn; not only had they survived the battle, but they had been obliged to do all the digging.  An icy wind whistled and moaned through the valley and across the mountain spurs, only accentuating the melancholy of the ceremony.

Death was a serious and ever-present concern in Elvish life, despite it being foreign to their nature.  One thing Oropher’s Iathrim had tried to bring to the silvan Elves was greater certainty about the Blessed Realm and the path appointed for Elvish dead, insofar as they understood it.  A much worse fate would be to linger in dread of the Valar and the Immortal West, lost and faded spirits clinging to the mortal world for fear of the unknown.  As he stood there in the cold overlooking another pit full of slain warriors, Thranduil reflected that perhaps it had not been without some purpose that the first Sindarin king of the Galennath had preceded them in death, and then their beloved queen, guiding them along the right path, leading by example.  They would more readily follow Oropher and Lindóriel into the Halls of the Dead than they would heed a strange call by powers hitherto unknown to them.  Perhaps there was some good in even their deepest griefs.

“Out of the depths of Middle-earth I cry to you, Guardians of this world who reign among the stars,” Thranduil began, reciting the solemn invocation required at funerals.  “Grant eternal rest unto these fallen, and may the perpetual light of the Blessed shine upon them.  O Belain, who have ever been attentive to the children of the All-Father, we beseech you on behalf of the spirits of our brethren who have been called out of this world.  Look upon them with pity and conduct them by your grace into the Immortal West, the true home of all Eledhrim.”

In the vast and empty silence, he stooped and took up a handful of earth, holding it over the open grave.  “Be at peace,” he said.  “Leave these mortal lands and fly upon the path appointed to you.  Mourn no loss.  Look not behind.  Fear no darkness.”  He opened his fist, and let the first soil fall over the dead.  

Bard then said what he had to say over the dead from Lake-town.  There were no flowers to be had in that season, but sweet pine boughs were laid in the grave before the arduous task of refilling it began.  The honor guard lay aside their weapons and armor and took up their shovels again.  Thranduil watched them work for a time, flanked by the only three of his Guardsmen currently fit for service.  It crossed his mind that the construction of a fitting memorial might be the first order of business upon which the Wood and the Mountain could collaborate peaceably.  

Bard and his attendants approached, and Thranduil nodded.  They had other ceremonies to attend.  Together with their companions they turned toward Erebor to represent the Lake and the Wood at the burial of Thorin Oakensheild and the crowning of the new King under the Mountain.  Thranduil’s household had thankfully had foresight enough to send fresh clothes for him, so he looked the part.  Gandalf and Bilbo had also begun walking that way.

A grim procession of Dwarves had gathered at the Gate, and they bore the shrouded bodies of Thorin and his two kinsmen on great gilded shields through the reclaimed corridors of Erebor to the beat of hidden drums.  They led the assembly into the deep passages lit by torchbearers, down into the very heart of the Mountain.   They entered an ancient crypt and lay their dead in three open tombs.

Dáin murmured solemnly over each in the secretive Dwarf tongue, and so did each surviving member of Thorin’s company.  Then they all stepped back.  Dáin struck the stone floor with the butt of a jeweled axe.  “The King under the Mountain is dead,” he declared.  “He has gone to rest with his fathers in the halls beyond our sight.  Are there any others who would offer him tribute?”  

Bard approached and drew out the Arkenstone.  Its pale gleam illuminated the gloom, reflecting the torchlight from its many facets as if to paint the walls with stars.  He laid it in the open tomb upon Thorin’s breast.  “There let it lie til the Mountain falls!” he said.  “May it bring good fortune to all his folk that dwell here after!”

All the Dwarves bowed low over their belts, signaling their agreement.  

Great carven stones were lifted and slid into place, covering the tombs forever.  The light of the Arkenstone vanished as Dain struck the floor seven times, and the ceremony was concluded.  

Before they all dispersed, Thranduil stepped forward and laid Orcrist atop Thorin’s tomb.  He could not in good conscience keep it for himself, and felt it was only right to return to the fallen king what had been taken from him.  Thranduil had many powers at work in the Wood to warn him of danger.  The sword of the Gondolindrim would be of greater use in the dark of Erebor, and the north need never again be surprised by an invasion of orcs.  

The assembly returned along the same corridor, climbing back into the upper halls.  The coronation was a simple and sober affair, though gleaming with more gold and jewels than many kings could hope to see in a lifetime.  Dáin was vested with the golden armor, the jeweled weapons, and the ermine cloak.  He seated himself in Thrór’s throne, and the royal helm was placed on his head.  

The herald struck the floor with his staff.  “Hail Dáin son of Náin, the second of his name, King under the Mountain!”

The Dwarves acclaimed him with lusty shouts, then allowed the echoes to reverberate in the vaulted chamber.  

Dáin dismissed all but his nearest attendants and the survivors of Thorin’s company.  “Come,” he said to Thranduil and Bard, Bilbo and Gandalf.  “We must conclude our other business.  All has been prepared.”

They followed him into a treasure chamber beyond the royal hall.  It was a very grand place, despite not being the king’s own treasury, and great heaps of wealth stood all around them, partitioned and measured.

“We will honor the agreement of the dead,” Dáin began, addressing himself to Bard, “for he now has the Arkenstone in his keeping.  This represents the fourteenth share that was named, as near as can be guessed.”  He indicated a small mountain of gold and jewels taller than any of them.  

“I accept it in the name of Dale and of the Lake,” Bard said grandly.  “May our realms endure in friendship as they once did!  A great share of gold I will give to the Master that Lake-town may be rebuilt, and those valiant men who accompanied me to war will not go unrewarded!”

“This also was found,” Dáin explained, presenting Bard with a jewel box, “and we restore it to your house.  They are the emeralds of Girion, set by our forefathers for yours in the days before Smaug.”

Bard accepted the box gratefully.  It contained a magnificent emerald necklace made with a multitude of very fine stones.  “It was made for Girion’s wife,” he said, “the Lady of Dale who escaped the dragon’s fire, and was intended to be a great heirloom of their house.  We thought it lost beyond hope.”  He seemed mesmerized for a moment, but then he returned to himself.  “These I give to the Elvenking,” he decided, “for without his compassion and generosity, until now unrecompensed, the house of Girion itself may have been lost.”

Thranduil was caught off guard by such an extravagant display of gratitude.  “Surely you do not wish to part with the only surviving heirloom of your house,” he protested quietly.  

“My house will survive to collect many more heirlooms, and for that we will be ever in your debt,” Bard insisted with a bittersweet smile.  “Even so, my lord, I would offer you some reward for the many kindnesses you have shown us, and I would count myself greatly honored if you would accept it for my sake.”

Seeing that Bard was quite determined, Thranduil relented and accepted the box.  “For your sake,” he agreed, returning the smile.

Dáin shifted where he stood, apparently rather embarrassed by Bard’s very public effusions of generosity.  Perhaps it stood in too stark a contrast to the Mountain’s neglect to offer Thranduil any reward for his trouble.  “Is there aught the Elvenking desires in return for his part in the battle?” he asked stiffly.

“There is,” Thranduil decided.  “I would reclaim something of mine.”

D