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A Spring of Joy  by daw the minstrel

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


7. Terror in the Woods

“It looks as if Gollum entered the woods here, probably on the same night that the guard chased him out of Dale.” Annael rose and stood looking pensively at the tracks.

Legolas frowned. “I do not like it. I thought he had left the Woodland Realm, and now he is heading straight back into it.”

“Are you sure it is him?” Beliond asked, drawing a frown from Annael. Beliond raised a placating hand. “I do not mean to insult you, but we have seen no carcass of any fresh kill, and I would have expected to find one by now. So far as we know, he has not eaten since he took the lamb outside of Esgaroth several days ago.”

“Unless there are two such creatures, this is Gollum,” Annael declared flatly. He frowned at the tracks. “He is using his hands more than he was, though, and the distance between the tracks is greater.” He looked at Legolas, who drew the obvious conclusion.

“He is traveling more quickly?”

“Yes,” Annael said, “and more unswervingly. He is wandering less and keeping in one direction.”

“As if he was going somewhere,” Legolas said apprehensively.

“He must be hungry,” Beliond insisted. “Since we have followed him, he has not gone this long without bringing down some prey.”

“Perhaps he has killed something, and we have not found it,” Legolas said. Annael raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Legolas grimaced. Annael had undoubtedly found anything there was to find. “If Gollum is hungry and in a hurry, then we should waste no time going after him.” He gestured to Annael, who led them swiftly into the woods.


Eilian stared at the pine seedlings, growing twisted and black in the clearing before him. The scouting party had been traveling on the ground rather than through the branches for the last two days because the trees here had become brittle and sick during the time Sauron had lived at Dol Guldur. Until now, however, they had seen healthy young trees scattered among the older ones. “Perhaps some disease is causing this,” he said. He looked to where Maltanaur, Sinnarn, and Tynd stood soberly studying the small trees. “Sinnarn, Emmelin sometimes finds diseased trees even close to the stronghold, does she not?”

Sinnarn grimaced and looked up at the sky, which was smudged with darkness like the smoke from a forest fire. “She does,” he acknowledged. He hesitated and then seemingly changed the subject, although Eilian knew it was not a real change. “I have never been this far south before,” Sinnarn said, “so I may be overreacting, but I have to confess that this place makes me nervous. I keep looking around to see if something is going to jump on my back.”

Eilian sighed. He knew what Sinnarn meant. His own nerves were on edge too. He looked south to where he knew Dol Goldur lay, although it was not yet visible above the tree tops. He thought they were close enough that they would be able to spot it later that afternoon. “We will keep out of sight as much as possible,” he said. “There may indeed be something there.”

The others nodded, and bows in hand, they set out again, keeping to the shadows that grew ever deeper as they drew nearer to their goal. Eilian tried to keep alert to the whereabouts of everyone else as he strained with all his senses to notice anything at all that would tell him what was happening in this blighted part of the forest. The silence he found disturbed him more than anything else. When he had been here after the Battle of Five Armies, bird and small animals had begun to return here. Now he heard nothing – no birdsong, no rustling in the underbrush, and most troubling of all, no song from the trees themselves. Ice crept up his spine. There was death here, and there was evil.

He glanced to his left, where he knew Sinnarn and Tynd should be, but he could not see them. It had grown dark while they searched, he realized in surprise. And then despair washed over him. He turned to Maltanaur, who hovered closer than he usually did on Eilian’s right hand. “It is Shadow, not night,” he said in a low, shaky voice.

His face grim, Maltanaur nodded. “It cannot be later than mid-afternoon.”

Eilian considered his options. In one sense, he had found out what Thranduil had sent him south to learn. Shadow was again rising at Dol Guldur. But he did not yet know the nature of the threat, for to him, the area felt different than it had when Sauron was there, despite the similarities in the darkness and the damage to the forest. Every one of his warrior’s instincts was telling him that there was danger here, but if he wanted to be most useful to Ithilden and his father, he needed to know just what that danger was. He drew a deep breath and sounded the signal to draw Sinnarn and Tynd to him.

They approached out of the gloom, Sinnarn in the lead and Tynd at his back, scanning the woods around them with an anxious eye. “I think I caught a glimpse of the tower through a gap in the pines,” Sinnarn muttered to Eilian. “But it is too dark to be sure.”

Eilian nodded. “We are close enough that you could have seen it, I think. We need to learn what is there as quickly as we can, and then get out of here.” He lifted his head to look south, his desire to know more at war with his growing alarm. “We will take three hours, no more,” he decided. “You two go that way. Try to get close enough to see the tower and then skirt around it, taking no more than the time I am giving you. If you learn something sooner, circle back this way and signal us. Maltanaur and I will go this way. We will meet here in three hours at the latest.” His face sober, Sinnarn nodded and started away. Eilian caught at his sleeve. “Be careful,” he warned. Sinnarn gave him a faint smile and nodded again before he and Tynd slid silently off into the darkness.

Eilian jerked his head at Maltanaur, and in utter silence, the two of them crept forward until at last, in the gap between the tops of two withered pines, Eilian saw the walls of Sauron’s fortress, rising above the dark hill of Dol Guldur. He stopped and stared at the tower, which he saw as only a slice of blacker black against the darkened sky. He realized that his diaphragm was so tight he was panting and drew a long, shaky breath, trying to ease his tension.

Something touched him lightly on the shoulder, and he jumped before he realized that it was Maltanaur. He glanced back, expecting to see a reassuring look on his bodyguard’s face. Instead, Maltanaur’s narrowed eyes were scanning Dol Guldur. Without waiting for Eilian to take the lead, Maltanaur moved stealthily to their right, starting a circuit of the base of the hill, with his eyes always on it. Eilian braced himself and went after his keeper.

Never taking his eyes from Dol Guldur, he crept quietly through the underbrush. The tower loomed before him, but he saw no movement. If there were guards, they were well hidden. Then Maltanaur touched his arm again and pointed to a gap in the underbrush just ahead of them. Eilian’s breath caught. Even in the darkness cast by the Shadow, he could easily see that the path leading away from Dol Guldur had been made by the heavy feet of Orcs.

We knew they were not all gone, he reasoned desperately with himself. We have seen them sometimes. But even as he made these excuses, he knew he was grasping at straws. Something had come to live at Dol Guldur again, and the forces of darkness were gathering to it.

By now, the time he had allotted to scout the area was nearly gone, and he knew that he and Maltanaur should start back to the meeting place, but he was not yet certain what was calling the Orcs here, and he longed to go on. When he started forward again, however, Maltanaur grasped his arm. “We will go back,” Maltanaur said firmly. “We know enough.”

With a reluctance that was shamefully mixed with relief, Eilian nodded curtly and started back to meet Sinnarn and Tynd. Even though he and Maltanaur had seen no one, something about this place made Eilian’s heart pound like that of a green warrior in his first battle. Gratefully, he accepted Maltanaur’s claim. They knew enough to tell Thranduil that Shadow was once again rising in the southern part of the realm. If Thranduil knew that, perhaps he could get the White Council to agree to drive it out again. Eilian suppressed the thought that the Council had taken centuries to agree to act the first time. Surely the Wise would see the pressing need not to let things get out of hand again.

They were nearly to the meeting place when, in the distance, he heard a loud crack, followed by a muffled cry. For a second, he froze. Then, with Maltanaur at his heels, he sprang in the direction from which the cry had come. And then other sounds came: those of growling voices and graceless feet.


Thranduil strode through the Great Doors into the glow of the spring afternoon. For a moment, he paused to watch a group of five or six children chasing a ball on the green. They were all several years older than Loriel, and she was not among them, but he knew she would have liked to be. He had seen her eyeing the children near the stronghold, and he could not help regretting her status as the only child in her settlement, although he had certainly said nothing about it to Celuwen, who tended to be touchy about anything that sounded like a criticism of where she and Eilian chose to live.

His gaze shifted to the where the forest began on the other side of the green, and he wondered how Eilian’s mission was going. Thranduil had been restless this afternoon, and he had had to reassure himself more than once that Eilian, Sinnarn, and their guards were competent warriors, the best he could have sent to learn what was happening at Dol Guldur.

There was no point in worrying, he thought and made his way down the steps, across the bridge, and through the gate into the palace gardens. He had gone no more than a few steps before he caught a glimpse of pink from the corner of his eye and looked to find his granddaughter just darting behind a lilac bush.

“I am ready!” she cried. “Come and find me now.”

Forgetting his worries, Thranduil grinned. With the skill of a much-experienced Elven warrior, he left the path and slid soundlessly around a flower bed toward the lilac. He could see Loriel with her back to him, bobbing from side to side as she tried to peer through the branches to see if someone was coming to seek her. He crept toward her and then, with a lunge, grabbed her around the waist and swung her up to rest on his hip. “You are captured, Fair Maiden!” he cried

She gave a single shriek, and then realizing who had seized her, she dissolved in giggles. “Grandfather, you startled me!”

He laughed. “Let that teach you to watch your back. Has your ada taught you no better than that?”

“Eilian tells her she is already too slippery,” said Celuwen’s voice, and Thranduil turned to see her approaching. She looked as if the strain of waiting for Eilian’s return was beginning to tell on her too. She looked tired, and the corners of her mouth were pinched.

“Grandfather found me before you did, Nana,” Loriel told her.

Celuwen’s face relaxed into a smile. “So he did. Would you like him to put you down so you can hide again?”

Loriel nodded, and Thranduil set her on her feet to run off down the path. He and Celuwen followed her to find Alfirin and Emmelin on the benches where the family had been gathering in the evenings now that spring had come. Both of them were engaged in embroidering the edges of small garments no doubt meant for Loriel, although Thranduil noticed that Celuwen had apparently not joined them in doing needlework. Thranduil hid his amusement. Celuwen was one of the most practical people he knew, a quality that balanced Eilian’s mercurial nature in a way Thranduil found very satisfying.

Loriel skipped further along the path and then darting off it into the greenery. He poured himself some wine and sat down next to Emmelin. “Sinnarn used to hide here too,” he told her. She smiled in response, but he thought she had some of the same drawn look that Celuwen had.

“Drat!” exclaimed Alfirin, startling Thranduil. She held her embroidery hoop in one hand and pawed through her sewing bag with the other. “I am out of blue thread.”

“I have extra,” Emmelin said, fishing a reel of royal blue thread from her own bag and handing it across the gap to Alfirin on the other bench. Thranduil sipped his wine. Even the normally placid Alfirin was on edge. He sighed and tried to calculate the days that would have to pass before Eilian and Sinnarn were home again.

“I am ready!” called Loriel.

Emmelin set her embroidery aside. “It is my turn,” she said and went off to look for Loriel. Within a very short time, Thranduil heard Loriel shriek, and then she came dancing back along the path with Emmelin smiling behind her.

“Emmelin found me,” she announced, making Thranduil laugh. Loriel cocked her head and looked at the garden wall. “The children are there,” she said, looking hopefully at her mother. Thranduil listened and realized that the children from the green were now just on the other side of the garden wall, probably heading for the path that began there and ran through the woods to a number of cottages.

“I know you want to play with them,” Celuwen said, “but they are going home.” Loriel clambered up to stand on tiptoe on the bench next to Celuwen and try to see over the wall. “They played with you before we came into the garden,” Celuwen comforted her, “and I am sure they will do so again tomorrow. But now you should go hide.”

Loriel heaved a sigh and climbed down off the bench. With her eyes still on the treetops visible over the wall, she trotted off toward the opposite end of the garden. Celuwen smoothed her gown over her knees, with her eyes too on the treetops.

“Do I recall correctly that the settlement’s waterwheel was damaged this spring, Celuwen?” Thranduil asked. “Has it been repaired yet?”

Clearly recognizing his effort to distract her from her worries, she smiled at him and launched into the tale of the mending of the waterwheel. On hearing of Eilian’s part in it, Thranduil found himself marveling yet again at how well his son had settled into life in the woods.

Finally, Celuwen broke off and turned her head in the direction Loriel had gone. “Surely she should be hidden by now.” She frowned. “I will just go take a look.” She rose and started after her daughter.

Thranduil watched her go, uneasiness prickling at the back of his mind. Next to him, Emmelin let her embroidery fall to her lap and frowned. On the bench opposite, Alfirin too was looking after Celuwen.

A sudden cry from Celuwen drove Thranduil’s heart into his throat. He leapt to his feet and ran toward where the cry had come from, with Alfirin and Emmelin right behind him. To his dismay, he found Celuwen standing just outside the gate that, at this end of garden, led to a maze of paths among the cottages, warrior training grounds, and stables.

“The gate was open,” Celuwen said in a strained voice, “and I cannot find Loriel anywhere in the garden.”

“She must have gone looking for the children,” Thranduil said, trying to sound more reassuring than he felt. “She cannot have gone far.”

In a habit born of long years as a warrior and hunter, he stepped off the path and moved toward Celuwen, scanning the ground for signs that Loriel had come this way. “Here she is.” He pointed to the track of a small foot and ran along next to the path, following the trail.

“Loriel!” Celuwen called as she trotted along beside him. “Loriel!”

Thranduil’s heart quickened a little when no answer came. He could imagine Loriel leaving the garden if she saw children through the slats of the gate, but he would have expected her to answer when her mother called. Unless, of course, she was still playing the hiding game. Thranduil did not like that thought at all. Legolas had once hidden in the woods when Thranduil had had him in his care, and Thranduil would have been much slower to find him if he had not been with two of his friends and the three of them had not taken to giggling when they saw Thranduil rush past.

The path he was on merged with a bigger one that was thickly marked with the tracks of the children he had heard passing the garden, but Loriel’s tracks were on top of them and he followed them easily enough until he came to a place where three paths split off. One led to nearby cottages; one led to the pond; and one led to the woods, although there were a few cottages in that direction too. Thranduil paused for a moment, with a sinking heart, trying to sort through what he saw. “She went toward the woods,” he told Celuwen, keeping his voice steady. “But she may have simply gone with another child to the cottages in that direction too.” The odds were overwhelming that Loriel was fine, but Thranduil knew that even in times of peace, the woods could be dangerous for an unwary child. And Celuwen knew it too. Her face went white.

Thranduil turned to Alfirin and Emmelin, who had been following just behind him and Celuwen. “Alfirin, go and tell the guards at the Door that we need as many of them as possible to help us search for Loriel.” She turned and ran back up the path and into the garden.

His eyes on the path, Thranduil ran toward the woods, with Celuwen and Emmelin at his sides. He found that the trees were humming happily with the news of the presence of children, but of course, Loriel had been following several other elflings. “Celuwen, do you know which children were on the green? We should check to see if she went home with any of them who live in this direction or if they saw her and know where she went.”

Celuwen hesitated. She had spent the last few years away from the stronghold and did not know the children well. “I think I know,” said Emmelin and reeled off a list of names.

“We will start with them,” Thranduil said, and the three of them scattered among the cottages that had just come into sight. But at every door they got the same answer: Loriel was not there. The child who lived there had not seen her since she had left the green to enter the palace gardens.

As Thranduil turned away from the last cottage to face Emmelin and an increasingly frantic Celuwen, Ithilden hastened into the clearing with half-a-dozen warriors at his back. “Did you find her?” he demanded.

“No,” said Thranduil. “Take your warriors and spread out to search in that direction. We will go this way. There is a path back that way as I recall, and she may have taken it.” Ithilden nodded and began organizing his forces, as Thranduil ran toward the path behind the cottages, with Celuwen and Emmelin behind him. Celuwen called Loriel’s name as they ran.

Thranduil soon realized that the path behind the cottages was heavily used by the children in the area, for it was covered with their tracks, making it hard for him to know if Loriel had been on it or not. He thought he saw signs of her, but could not be certain.  And then, abruptly, he skidded to a halt and scanned the ground more intently. The path curved to the west here, but there were unmistakable signs that a child had stepped off it and gone straight south. And the child had been small.

Thranduil’s breath caught. “This way,” he said, plunging into the underbrush. As the brush grew thicker, the signs of Loriel’s passage grew fainter, and he had to slow down.

Suddenly, Celuwen cried, “Here!” He spun to see her retrieving a pair of small shoes from a hollow in an old oak. Even from where Thranduil stood, he could see that Celuwen’s hands were shaking.

Once again, Thranduil listened to the trees, and with the rise of something that felt very much like panic, he realized that their song had become fearful. Something dangerous was astir among them. He looked at the ground again, desperately searching for some sign of the direction in which Loriel might have gone, but the light passage of her bare feet had left no trace that he could see.

He looked steadily at Celuwen. “We will spread out. You and Emmelin search in that direction. I will go this way.” When she turned to hasten off, he caught at her arm. “Be careful, Celuwen, but waste no time.” Her eyes widened, and then she spun and ran off with Emmelin, frantically calling her daughter as she ran.


Loriel trotted along through the trees, pleased by the good idea she had had when the older child had gone into a cottage, still unaware that Loriel was following her. This was the right way. She was sure of it. Grandfather had said that if she went south, she would get to where Ada was. It was far, he had said, but she could walk far. She would be very tired when she found Ada, but then he could carry her as always did when she reached for him.

Ada would be happy to see her. She was sure he missed her as much as she missed him. Nana missed Ada too. Loriel would tell Ada that, and he would come home right away.

It suddenly occurred to her that the trees sounded odd here. She slowed a little and turned her face up to look at them, towering over her. They sounded like the trees at home had sounded the morning she had gone outside in the nightdress. Whatever could be wrong with them?

Something moved in the bushes off to her left, and she spun to see what it was. And suddenly she wished that Ada or Nana or Grandfather was here. Whatever was in the bushes was coming toward her.

And then, to her right, she heard her mother calling her name, and weak with relief, she turned to answer.


“Eilian, wait!” Maltanaur gasped, and he felt a hand grasp the strap of his quiver.

“That was Sinnarn!” Eilian cried.

Maltanaur clapped a hand over his mouth. “Orcs!” he warned.  And Eilian realized he was right. What sounded like a small patrol of Orcs was running between him and Maltanaur and where he thought Sinnarn and Tynd were.

“Keep under cover,” Eilian ordered, nocking an arrow and starting forward again. “They are going toward Sinnarn and do not know we are here.” He ran lightly forward from shadow to shadow, his ears straining to hear what was going on ahead of him. In anguish, he heard what sounded like the whine of arrows and increased his pace.

Then, unexpectedly, he heard the beat of a horse’s hooves. And as he did, terror such as he had never known washed through him. His gorge rose in his throat, and his legs suddenly weakened and gave way beneath him as his vision blurred and he was driven to his knees. He could hear Maltanaur gasping just behind him, and Eilian felt a horrifying fear that if he had had the strength to scramble to his feet, he would have dropped his bow and fled.

From just ahead came the cry of a hunting Orc. He raised his head and drew in a great gasp of air. Sinnarn and Tynd were there, and they needed him. Even in his current trembling state, they needed him. Using every bit of will he possessed, he struggled to his feet and stumbled forward.


In the grassy area that had opened up before him, Thranduil crouched to look at the blades of grass that had been bent by the passage of a small foot. Exultantly, he sprang up and turned toward where he knew Emmelin and Celuwen must be, for he had heard Celuwen shouting for her daughter only a moment before. He opened his mouth to call them to him, but before he could make a sound, someone screamed.

He froze and then ran toward where the two Elf-women must be. What had Celuwen found? he asked himself in terror. Nearly choking with fear, he burst from the trees and then stopped short, for there, kneeling on the ground and keening, was not Celuwen, but Emmelin.


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