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A Spring of Joy  by daw the minstrel

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.


5. Hunting

Legolas paused at the edge of the thin line of tree growing along the edge of marsh. “Do you think Gollum went into Esgaroth?” he asked Annael doubtfully. “What could he want in the town?” He had a sudden vision of houses with babies sleeping near open windows and felt his stomach tighten a little.

Annael shrugged. “His tracks lead toward edge of the lake and then disappear. It looks to me as if he swam toward the town, but of course I cannot be certain, and I will not be able to track him once we get into Esgaroth. There are too many people.”

“We will need to ask the Master if his people have seen anything unusual,” Legolas said.

“I hope this one has more sense than the fool who was here when Smaug burned the old town down,” Beliond grumbled. “Given what I know of Mannish leaders, I would say we would do better to ask the captain of the town’s guard. At least, he would have a warrior’s sense of self-preservation, which means he is likely to have noticed something beyond the end of his nose.”

Legolas glanced at his keeper, whose face was set in lines of disapproval. When Smaug was killed, Legolas had been only a lieutenant in the Home Guard and had had very little to do with Esgaroth’s Master, but he had heard his father speak of the Man with scathing contempt, as self-serving and unable to meets the needs of his people when their town was destroyed. And a few years past, the Master had confirmed that judgment by running off with as much treasure as he could carry and then starving to death in the Wild. He had been found clutching the gold to his chest, as if unable to fathom that it would not feed him. Legolas had been stunned by the story, although not as stunned as he would have been before he saw Men ready to kill and die over Smaug’s treasure.

“I have met the new Master in the king’s hall,” Legolas said. “With Men, one never knows, but I think he is wiser.”

Beliond snorted. “That would not be hard.”

Legolas laughed. In truth, he had heard Thranduil say much the same thing. “Even if the Master has seen no sign of Gollum, he needs to be warned about the danger.” He started toward the bridge, knowing that the eyes of the guards at its end were on them, but also knowing that Elves came here to trade often enough that the guards would not stop them. He led his small party across the bridge and through the gates of the town.

Even though it did not appear to be a market day in Esgaroth, it seemed to Legolas that an inordinate number of people were confined within the city’s walls and that all of them were marching noisily on the wooden walkways while trying to be discreet in curiously eyeing the Elves. Legolas saw a young woman nearly walk off the edge of the walkway surrounding the marketplace pool as she turned to stare at them. She was saved at the last moment when her giggling companion seized her arm and drew her back. The noise of Men’s and Women’s heavy feet and the smell of their unwashed bodies seemed to bounce off the closely built houses and assault his senses, making him flinch away from them and immediately begin longing for the woods.

“I know they cannot help their gait,” Beliond grumbled under his breath, “but they live in the middle of a lake! You would think they could bathe regularly.” Legolas heard Annael snort and had to suppress a smile of his own as he led them toward the Town Hall, where he knew he was likely to find the Master.

Outside the doors of the Town Hall, Annael touched his arm lightly. “Beliond is right that the captain of the town’s guard is most likely to know if any intruders have been seen. Let me go and talk to him while you see the Master.” He shot a grin at Beliond, who looked sourly back, no doubt wishing he too could dodge out of a meeting with the town’s leaders and spend his time with its soldiers instead. For a second, Legolas considered sending Beliond off with Annael, but he knew that his keeper would never leave him alone with a group of Men. Beliond had spent too many years spying for Thranduil among the Men of the east to fully trust any of them.

“Good,” Legolas agreed. “We will meet you at this end of the bridge as soon as we are finished.” Annael nodded and walked off toward one of the guards at the Town Hall door, presumably to ask him where his captain could be found. Legolas pushed open the door of the Town Hall and entered, with Beliond close at his heels.

In his father’s halls, Legolas had heard that Esgaroth was flourishing in these peaceful days, largely because of the trade that came from the Dwarves at Erebor and the newly rebuilt town of Dale all passed up and down the lake and through Esgaroth. And as a sign of this prosperity, Legolas saw at once that the interior of the new Town Hall was much grander than that of the old one had been. The beams overhead were elaborately carved and gilded in what looked like gold, while the walls were covered in hangings of blue velvet to keep out the winter’s cold. Today, the hangings were draped back away from the windows, through which a breeze came off the lake that ran along one side of the building. Legolas inhaled the fresher air with relish, finding traces of the scent of the forest, brought on the wind.

At a large table at the front of the room, the Master and several other members of the town council had evidently just finished hearing some sort of request from a townsman who was now turning away. As he did, the Master’s eyes followed him and then lit upon Legolas. It was obvious to Legolas that the Master recognized him immediately.

“Lord Legolas, welcome!” the Master said, beaming. He turned to the other Men at the table. “I believe we are through for the day, gentlemen.” With curious eyes on Legolas and Beliond, the Men rose, bowed, and drifted away toward the door. The Master waved to a servant hovering nearby. “Find chairs for our guests and then bring wine.” The servant hurried to carry chairs from near the wall and place them in front of the table. Legolas sat, and after a moment’s hesitation during which he scanned the room, so did Beliond, turning his chair slightly as he did so. Legolas had to conceal a smile. His bodyguard would hate the fact that they were sitting with their backs to the open room rather than to a wall. Legolas was not worried. Even the old Master would never have been foolish enough to allow anything to happen that might bring Thranduil’s wrath down on his head.

The servant hastened out of the room, and the Master leaned a little forward. “We’re honored by your visit, my lord. May I ask what brings you to Esgaroth?”

“We are tracking an intruder to the King’s realm, and we have found signs that he might have made his way here,” Legolas said.

The Master’s face creased with concern. “I assure you, my lord, that Esgaroth would never harbor an enemy of our friend, the Elvenking, and we would know if a stranger were about.” Legolas’s answer was delayed when the servant returned with cups of wine for everyone and a flagon, which he set on the table between the Master and Legolas.

“You might not know that this intruder was here,” Legolas told the Master. “But he is dangerous.” Legolas hesitated, trying to decide how to describe what Gollum might have done. “He hunts for young animals and even children. Have you had reports of harm being done to your people or their livestock?”

The Master straightened, his concern now deepening to alarm. “I would certainly know if anyone had attacked a child, and there have been no such incidents.”

“What of the animals that I see grazing in the fields along the shore? Have any of them being stolen?”

The Master shook his head. “I’ve not heard of any,” the Master said, “but if your intruder took a sheep, for instance, I would not have been told unless it happened a number of times. The captain of the town guard might have heard reports. His Men are out and about among the people. Shall I summon him?”

“Do not trouble yourself,” Legolas said hastily. “We will speak to him ourselves.” He did not think it wise to tell the Master that Annael was already speaking to the captain without having asked the Master’s permission first. The Master might not mind, but Legolas found Men to be unpredictable compared to Elves, and he did not want to take the chance of irritating one of his father’s allies.

“Will you stay and feast with us this evening, my lord?” the Master asked.

Legolas shook his head. “I regret that we must be on our way. We will continue hunting for this intruder, but it would ease my mind if you warned your people to take care.”

“Of course.” He leaned back and smiled. “It’s a pity you can’t stay. You would find that Esgaroth is thriving, if I do say so myself. I’ve been able to add more docks and increase our trade, and I am pleased to say the people of Esgaroth are doing well as a consequence.” He laughed. “You will think it foolish but people are making songs saying that I’ve made the old prophecies come true, and the river flows with gold.”

Legolas made a noncommittal noise as he sipped his wine. As far as he knew, Esgaroth’s prosperity stemmed from the death of Smaug and the subsequent rebuilding of Dale and Erebor, and neither this Master nor the previous one had had anything to do with those events.

The Master took a drink of his own wine. “What a time that was! We still speak of it often. Why, at the feast just a few nights ago, the minstrel sang a new song about the Dwarves and Mr. Baggins and how we all thought we’d never see them again when they left to go north to Dale. Who could have guessed what would happen?”

“Who indeed?” Legolas agreed. Not Thranduil, he knew. His father had been as startled as anyone when the Dwarves had succeeded in their quest. And while at first Thranduil had not been entirely pleased to have Dwarves as neighbors again, the people of the woods, the mountain, and the lake had eventually settled into a loose friendship that seemed to benefit all of them.

Beliond shifted restlessly, and Legolas realized that, now that their business was concluded, his keeper wanted him out of there. He set his wine cup on the table, rose, and bowed. Beliond was on his feet in an instant. “Thank you for your help, Master,” Legolas said. “We will let you know if we learn anything more about our intruder, and the king would be grateful if you would return the favor.”

The Master too rose and bowed. “We are always happy to be of service to Lord Thranduil.”

Legolas and Beliond were no more than twenty yards from the Town Hall before Beliond muttered, “He thinks highly of himself. To hear him, you would never know that Smaug once sat on the gold he now says flows down the river.”

Legolas shrugged. “He did not run off with the gold meant to be used to rebuild the town, so I suppose he may look like Gil-galad to the people who elected him.”

Beliond snorted but said nothing further. They found Annael waiting for them near the bridge. From the alert way Annael stood, Legolas could see at once that he had news. “What did you learn?” Legolas asked in a low voice as they crossed to the shore.

“The captain said that three nights ago, a lamb was stolen from a field along the shore just north of town. They thought a wolf must have taken it, but they were uncertain because the tracks were not right.”

Legolas raised an eyebrow at him. “Not right? If this was Gollum, then I would say not!”

Annael smiled. “The weather has been dry, and the lamb was in a grassy meadow. I am not sure that Men would be able to find tracks at all under those circumstances.”

Legolas smiled back. Despite the fact that Annael was modest, he plainly believed he would have found tracks under those circumstances. But then he was a Wood-elf. “We will camp nearby and try to pick up Gollum’s trail in the morning.” Annael and Beliond both nodded, and they made their way toward a stand of trees along the shore.


“We will camp here,” Eilian announced. The others dropped their packs, and Sinnarn and Tynd set about starting a fire and looking for water, while Eilian led Maltanaur off to search for small game. As he had done each day for the last week, Eilian had kept the scouting party moving well into the early evening, so he knew he and Maltanaur might not have time to hunt down enough meat, but they had dried meat with them and could boil it if they needed to.

This part of the woods had never been as badly off as the part closer to Dol Guldur, but it seemed to Eilian that it had been darker the last time he had come this way, and he knew he should be reassured by the way even the air felt lighter now. Still, he found he was uneasy and had become increasingly so throughout the day, although he could not have said why.

He glanced at his bodyguard. “Perhaps we should gather some of those mushrooms we saw and go back. Tynd can make a stew from the dried stuff.” Without comment, Maltanaur swung around and started back toward where they had seen the mushroom patch. They gathered as many mushrooms as they could hold in a fold in their tunics and made their way back to camp.

“Here,” Eilian dumped the mushrooms he carried next to Tynd. “See what you can do with that.”

Tynd grinned and picked up a handful of the cattails that lay next to him. “Sinnarn thought you might have left it too late to hunt and brought these back from the stream. I am working on it.”

Eilian nodded, grateful for Sinnarn’s and Tynd’s easy acceptance of the way he had been pushing them. But he supposed they all wanted to know what was happening in the south. He seated himself, with his back against an oak and his knees drawn up, as, with Sinnarn’s help, Tynd went on preparing their meal. Maltanaur sat down next to him. “We are more than halfway there,” Maltanaur observed.

Eilian picked up a twig and dug at the dirt near his right foot. “Does the forest feel disturbed to you, Maltanaur?”

His keeper considered the idea for a moment. “No. As a matter of fact, I would have said that the trees here feel more alive than they did the last time we were here.”

“I know. I feel that too, but something is not right.” Eilian tapped the twig against the toe of his boot. “What do you think we will find at Dol Guldur?”

Maltanaur shrugged. “We will not know until we get there.” He glanced at Eilian. “Are you worried?”

Eilian sighed. “I had hoped that Loriel could grow up in peace and more or less certain that her adar would come home to her each night.”

“Children who are loved like your little one is do well enough even in times of trouble,” Maltanaur said. “Look at Sinnarn.” He picked up a pine cone and threw it at Sinnarn, who turned and scowled at them.

Eilian looked at his nephew. Sinnarn had had a happy enough childhood, but the sword on his hip told Eilian just how constrained Sinnarn’s choices in life had been. “We would have to leave the settlement,” Eilian worried. “When Sauron was at Dol Guldur before, all the children moved to the stronghold. I remember because Legolas was little at the time, and there were more children for him to play with.”

He thought suddenly not of Sinnarn, but of Legolas, who had grown up without his mother because of the forces of darkness. If something is at Dol Guldur, we will leave the settlement, he thought grimly, even if Celuwen objects. Not that he seriously thought she would. Celuwen would no more risk Loriel’s safety than he would. He quickly suppressed the thought that living in the stronghold had not saved his mother.

“It does no good to borrow trouble, Eilian,” Maltanaur said gently. “It comes soon enough even if we do not seek it.”

“I know,” Eilian grimaced.

“The stew is ready,” Tynd announced, and Eilian flung the twig away to go get his share of the meal and sit down near the fire.

Sinnarn sat across from him, poking at his stew with a doubtful look on his face. He scooped something unidentifiable into his mouth and chewed as if he were testing it. “Not bad,” he declared. “But if you put wine in the sauce next time, that will help, Tynd.”

Tynd snorted. “I will keep that in mind.”

Sinnarn spooned up another lump, and his face took on a dreamy look. “Do you know who is very good at finding wonderful meals in the woods?  My wife’s adar. Emmelin is not bad herself, but Annael brings back things that make Grandfather’s table look dull.”

“Legolas has always said that about Annael too,” Eilian agreed. He grinned. “On the other hand, I always check very carefully when I find that my wife’s adar has picked the mushrooms that I am to be fed.” They all laughed.

“I am grateful for having Annael instead of Sólith across the table from me at family dinners,” Sinnarn said fervently.

They finished the meal and then drew for the watches. Eilian lay down, with Maltanaur at his back as he had been since when Eilian was on duty since he had first pledged himself as a warrior.  His presence was comforting, but still Eilian felt a flicker of despair. Will we have to take up this life again? he wondered.


“Hurry, Nana,” urged a high-pitched voice in the hallway. Thranduil looked up from the plans his advisor was showing him and smiled.

“My lord,” his advisor groaned, “you need to decide if we are to rebuild the bridge. And really, my lord, it would make traveling the Elf Path much easier if we did.”

“Easier for friend and foe alike,” Thranduil said, rising. “Elves have done without a bridge over the Enchanted River for a good many years. A few weeks’ delay will not hurt us now. We will discuss this again after Lord Eilian has returned.”

The advisor looked exasperated but held his tongue and bowed as Thranduil crossed his office and opened the door to find Loriel hopping from one foot to the other while Celuwen talked to an Elf whom Thranduil vaguely recognized as one of the palace seamstresses. “What have we here?” he asked, smiling at his granddaughter.

“I am going outside, Grandfather!” Loriel turned to him with her eyes wide in excitement, and his breath caught. He had seen exactly that look in his wife’s grey eyes when she was anticipating something that delighted her.

“You will have to wait a little, sweetling,” said Celuwen. “I need to talk to Elerith now if you are to have any new clothes made while we are here.”

“No!” Loriel cried. “I cannot wait, Nana.”

Celuwen gave her an exasperated look, and Thranduil hastily intervened. “I am finished for the day,” he said, ignoring the look on the face of the advisor who had just slipped past him on his way toward the antechamber. “Shall I take you out to the garden, Loriel?”

“Not the garden,” Loriel protested. “The woods! Please,” she added, glancing at her mother.

Thranduil concealed a smile. Loriel was working on remembering to say “please,” with a fair amount of maternal prompting. “Very well,” he agreed. “The woods it is.” He had seen how hard Loriel found it to be cooped up in the cavern all day, and he felt sorry for her. There were days when he too wanted to whine, “The woods! Please!”

Celuwen hesitated. “You will have to watch her, Adar. She sometimes loses track of where she is supposed to be.”

Thranduil smiled broadly. “I understand. I occasionally kept an eye on your husband in the woods when he was small.”

Celuwen laughed. “I was sometimes part of the party, as I recall. I suppose you have the right kind of experience then.” She turned to Loriel. “Be good and mind your grandfather.”

“I will!”

Thranduil reached for her hand and rejoiced at the feel of it clasped in his as they walked through the antechamber to the top of the Great Steps. The guards at the Doors were obviously trying to keep their eyes straight ahead, but they both smiled as he and Loriel emerged. They worked their way down the steps, and then he let go of her hand and she raced off across the Green. “Wait for me at the start of the path,” he called, lengthening his stride to catch up.

Obediently, she ran in a circle around the big oak at the point where the path led into the woods. She skipped away down it when he arrived at her side, pausing to make chattering noises at a squirrel that had run up a tree when she drew near and now sat scolding her. She dropped back to trot by his side for a moment. “Can you hear the trees from inside your palace, Grandfather?”

He looked down at the earnest, round face turned up to him. “No, I cannot.”

She frowned. “I cannot either. I like it more out here.” And she raced away again to scramble up into the branches of a maple. “Can you see me, Grandfather?” she called from behind a screen of leaves.

He laughed. “Oh no! I have lost Loriel! Her nana is going to be very angry with me. Where can she be?” He leapt up into the maple, landing on the branch next to his wide-eyed granddaughter. “Here she is!”

“I can get away!” she squealed, bending her knees to jump, and he grabbed at her just in time to keep her from trying to make a very long leap to the next tree. Time stopped. For an endless space of it, he sat with his arm around her waist and his heart beating frantically, not yet aware that the danger had passed.

“That is too far for you, sweetling,” he finally found enough breath to say.

She looked from his face to the limb to which she had been intending to jump. “I could hurt myself,” she said in a singsong voice that suggested she was repeating something she had been told before.

“Yes, you could, and then we would all be very sad.” He drew her to him, pulling her onto his lap as he leaned back against the maple’s trunk. “Did your nana tell you not to try to jump so far?”

She nodded. “And also Ada.” Thranduil contemplated the idea of Eilian warning a child to be careful of danger and found he had been so shaken by Loriel’s daring that he could not even take proper satisfaction from it. He would have to try again later, he decided.

Loriel sat quietly for a moment, looking off through the forest. “Grandfather, if we keep going, will we come to where I live?”

He looked where she was looking. “Yes. That way is south, and if we went far enough, we would come to your cottage. It is a long way though. Remember how long you and Nana had to ride to come here?”

She considered. “If we went more, would we come to where Ada is?”

A warning bell sounded in the back of Thranduil’s mind. Not for nothing had he spent years learning to anticipate Eilian’s more exciting actions. He put as much seriousness into his voice as he could. “We would, but that is very, very far away.”

She continued to look south. “I can walk far,” she said, as if to herself.

“An elfling could never walk that far,” said Thranuil sharply. She looked at him but said nothing. He wondered if he should tell her that such a trip would also be dangerous, but he did not want to frighten her about what Eilian might be encountering.

She leaned against his chest. “What if Ada goes home and does not find me?” She sounded so forlorn that his heart went out to her. He kissed the top of her head.

“Your Grandfather Sólith and Grandmother Isiwen know where you are, do they not? They would tell your ada.”

Apparently satisfied, she snuggled closer to him, rubbing her cheek against his tunic and sniffing at it. “I miss Ada.”

“I know you do. Your nana misses him too, I think. How would it be if we went to the meadow and picked some wildflowers to make your nana feel better?”

She brightened and immediately began to wiggle as if to get off his lap, but he clutched her firmly and carried her as he descended the tree. Hand in hand, they walked to the meadow, where Thranduil released her to run about, gathering flowers for Celuwen. He smiled to himself. He had good memories of this meadow. In truth, the father of the elfling now running around in it had been conceived here.

“Look, Grandfather!” Loriel cried, running back to him with a handful of purple flowers. “See how beautiful!”

He looked down at her flushed, eager, trusting face. “I see,” he smiled at her, and for the moment at least, for him, Arda was a place of contentment.


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